Category Archives: Happiness

How Many Great Years Do You Need To Call It A Great Life?

“You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.” –Mae West

“May you live every day of your life.” –Jonathan Swift

Hello friend,

I remember so clearly the high I felt upon publishing my first Journal of You letter to you more than six years ago.  The adrenaline rush, the ecstasy, the peace and satisfaction of doing what feels exactly right and true.  It was like falling in love.   I had always tried in different ways—teaching, coaching, managing–to help other people to be their best, but this time it was like I was finally tapping into my best stuff.  It was fulfilling in a way nothing else had ever been, making me believe I had truly and finally locked into my purpose.  It was heavenly.  I figured if I could just stay dialed into that energy for the rest of my life—just keep doing the meaningful work—when all was said and done, I could lay claim to a truly great life.  That’s all I wanted.  That all I have ever wanted.

For the first months after beginning my letters, I was going like a madman: working a lot, spending every possible minute with my young children, and then staying up into the wee hours to pour out my heart and soul into the keyboard to keep your inbox full of new thoughts from me.  I hardly slept at all, fueled almost entirely by my passion for the work and that inimitable high I mentioned above.

Before long, it became clear that I could not sustain the wild pace, and I settled on a deadline of one letter per week.  It would still be a stiff challenge for time and sleep, but it seemed to strike the right blend of reasonably demanding to my mind and deeply fulfilling to my soul.  Writing was in me, I knew that, and committing to producing constantly made it feel professional, like I wasn’t merely dabbling but instead was giving it the effort and attention that it deserved.  I was being a “real” writer, which felt like what I was called to do.

That hectic pace kept going right up until the time when I realized I could not edit and assemble my upcoming book if I was preoccupied every week with producing a new letter to you.  Even though the answer was obvious, it was still heart-wrenching for me to put the blog on hold until the book was ready for release.  It was a grinding process but richly rewarding to the soul in the end.  All of that blood, sweat, and tears had left some small mark upon the world; it would live beyond me.  I was proud of myself.  And I was sure it was just the beginning.

I have always had a very wide variety of interests and don’t like to limit my areas of study or work.  I could imagine being deeply fulfilled by years filled with writing in all sorts of formats—books, articles, blogs, personal correspondence—but I know that other things could fulfill me also.  Coaching, counseling, public speaking, working to make the world a more peaceful, sustainable, and equitable place to live—all of these things are meaningful to me.  So, although I think of myself as a writer and saw the publishing of my first book as a harbinger of things to come, I knew that writing wasn’t the only way I would measure “success” along my journey and certainly wouldn’t be the only consideration when I got to the end of it all and gave myself a final grade.

And not that work or career are the only ways I want to gauge my progress as a person and the quality of my existence.  As I go along, and definitely in my final measure, I will be looking hard at my relationships and the amount of love given and received in them.  My role as Dad will be especially under the microscope, followed by husband.  Son, brother, and friend, too.

I will also take into consideration how much fun I have had and the quality and quantity of my adventures.  I hope that, in the end, I will not be disappointed by the number cross-country roadtrips I have taken, how many new languages I have been lucky enough to try, and how many nights I have spent under the stars.  I will want to recall how many times I laughed myself into a bellyache, played my fingertips raw, and sung myself hoarse.  I will consider all the times I have played my muscles to exhaustion.  I will delight in replaying the moments when I have been moved to tears by live music, a poetry reading, an interpretive dance, or live theatre.  And of course, I will ache to recount the times (hopefully many) I have allowed myself to be moved to pure creation by The Muse.

I have no doubt that part of the equation will also be the quality of my actions and how they affected the greater world around me.  Did I show enough empathy for those who have not been as lucky as I have?  Did my writing do enough to raise awareness of the importance of living our best lives, including being better to the people around us?  Did I make visible the people too often ignored?  Did I raise my voice enough to help the voiceless?  Basically, is the world a better place because I was here?

The other thing I will really want to establish is if I was happy.  Really, truly happy.  I have read books and articles that suggested being happy is the meaning of Life.   I don’t know if that is true, but it certainly is important and a necessary consideration when assessing the quality of one’s full life.  After all, what good are adventures, ideals, and good deeds if they don’t make you happy?  Answer (I think): some good, no doubt, but not good enough.  So, I will measure my joy and satisfaction, my degree of fulfillment, and the delight at being me.

These subjective assessments should matter—just because they are difficult to measure does not mean they don’t have a significant impact—because they are the truth behind what we see in the mirror every day.  They cover over us and ooze out of us in our most quiet moments alone.  That’s why I will take them seriously in my final judgment.

But I know myself too well; I am sure that much of my grade will be based on “production.”  I will want a clear calculation of how many Journal of You letters I have published, and how many years I published them.  I will want to know how many books I have written (and it better be more than one!).  The same for podcasts, articles, TED talks, or anything else I put out into the world.  I will want specific examples of the people I have made a positive impact on: my students, clients, readers, listeners, and anyone else I somehow touched along the way with my endeavors.  I’ll need names!  There will be a list.   I’ll want proof of a great life.

That proof is exactly why my lifestyle since publishing my book has been gnawing at me lately.  You see, after I exhaled that giant sigh of relief two years ago when the book went out, I decided I needed some time to be without the strict deadlines I had kept for myself the previous five years.  I wanted a break from that pressure to produce writing all the time.  Instead of a weekly deadline for these letters to you, I gave myself an extra week in between.  So, instead of stressing every week, I let myself relax for a week, then stress the next week until I hit the “Publish” button.  It was a delightful ease that I had forgotten all about since I wrote that first Journal of You post years earlier.  I felt a little guilty—like I was cheating on my commitment to professionalism—but the ease was so nice.  I actually let myself do some other things, from home repairs to extra time reading, even an occasional movie.  I felt more well-rounded.  It seemed like self-care, which I have heard is a good thing.

But then, if something came up and I couldn’t quite squeeze in a post that second week, I gave myself a pass.  I wasn’t as hard on myself about meeting deadlines.  I let myself be okay with not having a new book idea to pursue.  I let myself stay in work that doesn’t deliver a high enough level of impact on others.  My standard for disappointment in myself loosened.  I justified more self-care.  Pass, pass, pass.  Slide, slide, slide.  And I have been happy.  I am enjoying myself and my time.  I notice the lack of tension and appreciate the absence of the weight on my shoulders, the need to constantly rise to my high standards.  I Iike doing the other things, too.  Life is good.

And yet, just below the surface, there is always the gnawing…

I can’t help thinking that I will wake up one of these days in a full-blown panic with the realization at how much time has passed since I was in fifth gear, churning out evidence of how I want to be in the world and the impact I want my life to leave.  I will remember vividly how, only two short years ago, I was on fire with productions of my purpose and my passions.  And I will be devastated by regret.

I am a lifelong student of Tennis, and I think often about the three guys that are at the absolute pinnacle of the sport: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic.  They only got there by doing everything right all along the way.  Nutrition, fitness, stroke production, mental strength, attitude, work ethic.  Everything.  All of that has to be done consistently to have the best career possible, to be Federer, Nadal, or Djokovic rather than Kyrgios or Safin.  If you are asking who those last two are, my answer is, “EXACTLY!”  You have proven my point.  (Answer: They are players who shared the era with the three giants and had at least as much talent but nowhere near the results, victims of their own inconsistent efforts.)

Is Life the same way?  Do we get to coast for any extended periods—mindlessly going through the motions without putting our noses to the grindstone of our dreams and ideals and pointedly attempting to do our best—without ultimately being unsatisfied with our run?  That is the question that gnaws at me.

I will turn 48 soon.  It’s not ancient, but believe me, that proximity to 50 has made me aware that my clock is ticking.  There is more sand in the bottom of the hourglass than the top.  I hate that!  I love this life and want it to go on and on.  I have thought that all along, but now there is that ticking in the ambience, supplying the years with an urgency that didn’t exist before.

I want my lifetime, when all the dust settles, to have been a great one.  Not just a good one.  Not just one with a smattering of good memories and sweet loves, or a handful of milestones that I was once proud to hit.  I want it to have been great.  Roger Federer great.  I want to know that I made good use of my gifts, that I lived up to my potential.  That’s really what it is, now that I write the word: potential. When I go, I want to have wrung out every last bit of goodness from my soul and left it here on the Earth.

When I think about that standard, the regret begins to pour over me.  It just seems like the people who have lived the very best of lives probably didn’t do a lot of sliding.  You know, like Mother Teresa, she probably didn’t knock off her work with the poor in India for a few years to recharge her battery, kicking back to read and do coffees with friends.  Martin Luther King probably didn’t do a lot of retreats or take sabbaticals from injustice (My goodness, the man did all he did and was killed before he even reached age 40; that is humbling to any aspiring change-maker.) .

And while I understand that Life requires balance, and while I accept that self-care, downtime, hobbies, and even perhaps some mindless television or social media are part of that balance that makes for a healthy existence, I also can see how easy it is to fall into the trap of overindulgence.  “Self-care” can be a drug, too, an opiate that allows me to piddle away my time on what genuinely appear to be pleasant activities and personal growth but are, after a while anyway, simply justifications for not doing better for the world around me.  That translates into a life that is enjoyed but not fulfilled.  I want both.  I demand both.

So, given that I know I haven’t done it all right to this point, my main question is: How much slide time do I have left, if any, before I no longer have a chance to make mine a truly great life?  Has my relative slide these past two years been too much to overcome?  How “productive” do I have to be every year going forward to negate this slow patch?  More generally, I just want to know what percentage of a person’s life gets to be unambitious in the direction of her ideals and goals compared to the percentage that she spends fully engaged in the good stuff.  Because, like I said, I do enjoy my sliding activities, but I think they would be all the more enjoyable if there wasn’t that perpetual gnawing that accompanies them.  It would be nice if present guilt and future regret didn’t accompany every period of ease and contentment.  I would champion and embody the whole Balance and Self-Care movement if I knew just what the acceptable balance was.  Acceptable for Greatness, that is.  I don’t want to be just generally satisfied at the end of this ride.  I want to be completely fulfilled.  I want to have made an impact.  I want to be able to call my life great.

How about you?  Are you using your time in a way that you will not have regrets later about squandering the potential you had to build a great life?  Open up your journal and explore your goals and ideals in juxtaposition with the way you have passed the years.  Are you on your way to living the life you have imagined for yourself, or are you mostly coasting through to wherever?  Perhaps it is best to begin by envisioning your best life.  What does that look like for you?  What kind of work would you be doing?  What positive impact on the world would you be making?  Whose lives would you be touching?  Which ideals would you be advancing?  How fulfilled would you be?  Does that vision feel like a great life?  Let’s keep that vision as your standard.  Now, how are you doing at living up to it?  Over the last decade, in how many of the years do you feel like you have made significant strides in the direction of these goals and ideals?  How many of the years have you coasted through?  What about this year?  Are you in a Progress Mode at the moment, or are you sliding by?  How much does it bother you when you realize you are in a coasting period?  Do you feel guilt about your slides?  How much do you think you will regret them later?  How do you feel in your most “productive” periods, when you are advancing your dreams and doing good work in the world?  Does the satisfaction give you fuel to do more, even as the work is taxing?  How long do your ideal stretches tend to last, these times when you are really in the flow and knowing you are making a difference?  How long do your more passive, coasting stretches tend to last?  Is your ebb and flow of ambition fairly consistent?  Do you need the down times to refuel your tank for more of the good stuff, or do you just get sidetracked?  How aware are you of the phase you are in at any given time?  Do you know when you are in Self-Care Mode versus Hard Driving Mode?  Do you plan it?  What do you think is the right balance for you?  What percentage of your adult years will have to have been good ones for you to proclaim, in the end, that you have had a truly great life?  Do you think your standard is pretty similar to most people’s?  Do you feel driven to have a great life, or is a good or okay one acceptable for you?  At the end of it all, how closely will you have come to reaching your potential?  Are you on track for that now, or do you have some catching up to do?  Do you believe it is still possible?  What will you regret coasting by?  What is one thing you can do today to advance your cause?  I hope that you will take advantage of the opportunity.  Leave me a reply and let me know: How much of your life needs to be great to have lived a truly great life?

Seize the day,

William

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

P.P.S. If this method of self-inquiry and storytelling appeals to you, consider buying my book, Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth, at your favorite online retailers.

Have You Made Any Lemonade From All Of These 2020 Lemons?

“And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive.  You won’t even be sure, whether the storm is really over.  But one thing is certain.  When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in.  That’s what this storm’s all about.” –Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

“The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’  One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity.  In a crisis, be aware of the danger—but recognize the opportunity.” –John F. Kennedy

Hello friend,

I am SO HAPPY to connect with you again!  It feels like forever since I have written to you.  I love to write these letters.  I love the whole process: what I learn about myself in the exploration, the struggle to piece together the right combination of words to make my idea clear to you, the ecstatic blend of calm certainty and dancing butterflies I feel deep down in my chest and my soul from the knowledge that I am acting on my purpose, the joy and relief of hitting the “Publish” button and seeing my labor of love go out into the world to mingle with your beautiful mind, and the connection I feel with you as a result.  All of that is everything to me.  I love to write.  I am so grateful to be in your world, to share space with you today.  This is where I am supposed to be.

So, why haven’t I been here more often lately?  That is the logical question.  In Pandemic America, after all, the story goes that Time itself has slowed down, and with it, all of our lives.  We have the headspace and the minutes and hours (and days and weeks and months….) to collect ourselves, to nest, to make our spaces feel more like home, to set our priorities right, and to finally do all of the things we have been longing to do for ourselves.  As disruptive as the coronavirus has been to our normal—our economy, our relationships, our work, our fun, our faces—it supposedly gave us this gift of a “RESET,” the time to get ourselves right and clarify who and what we love.

This is why I have been racked with guilt and frustration that I haven’t been writing more over the past several months.  This would seem to have been the ideal time to churn out letters to you every week like I used to.  After all, Journal of You is about digging into our own existence and coming to understand where we have come from, where our passions lie today, and where we see ourselves going in the moments we have left on this Earth.  This should be our opportunity to nail that stuff down, right?  A chance at complete clarity, at least for a moment in our otherwise-busy lives.  Somehow, I have failed to capitalize on this most golden of opportunities.

I suppose it was some combination of laziness, busy-ness, and distractedness.  That natural slowing down during the earliest, “lockdown” phase of the pandemic seemed to slow everything down, including my ambition.  I was enjoying the relative quiet and solitude of my home and family, content to soak up their company and the extra moments without errands and commutes.  The urgency to write it all down just wasn’t there.  Then came the urgency to do the other things that are typically much more neglected than my writing.  Like so many other people, I took on all sorts of home improvement projects, becoming an apprentice painter, landscaper, and organization guru.  With my time going into those tasks, the hours allotted to writing diminished.  Then there was the issue of headspace.  For so much of the last half a year, my brain seemed to split its thoughts three ways: pandemic, racial injustice, and governmental/political nonsense.  All three are psychologically and emotionally draining in their own ways, leaving precious little energy for regular functioning, much less for creative expression.

I found myself at the breakfast table this week reading up on the wildfires currently devastating the American West.  The whole thing is absolutely heartbreaking to me on so many levels: the loss of life (human, animal, plant, and more), the loss of Beauty, the loss of habitat, the loss of personal property and the priceless feelings of “home” for so many, the loss of jobs and dreams, the recklessness of human-created climate change, the addition of even more greenhouse gases from the fires themselves, and all of the trauma caused, to name just a few.  The thought that rose up from inside me was, “My God, I hope we are learning something from this, at least.  There has to be some good that comes from it.  Something!”

It came out like a plea, I suppose, an imploring of the people of the world to find a way to do better as a result of this catastrophe, to create a silver lining from these darkest of clouds.  To make lemonade from this overabundance of lemons we seem to be tripping over wherever we step.

Just think about these last few months and the swirl of awfulness that has joined our already-tense and divided country. The gross mishandling of the coronavirus and subsequent spiraling death toll and economy.  The very public murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor (to name but a few) and the subsequent protests across in cities big and small across the country.  Unemployment and food insecurity for so many.  The deaths of social justice giants John Lewis and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  The continued lies and indecency of the President.   The approach of a contentious election.  The fires.

These are all things that have the potential, individually, to knock you down and leave you feeling lost and unmoored from your moral and emotional home base.  They can also, individually, leave you deeply bitter and lacking faith in our country, its institutions, and its people.  They have the potential, individually, to make you want to shut down, to retreat, to go into self-preservation mode.  With powers of destruction that strong individually, when taken together, in a series of relentless, cascading blows one on top of another and often simultaneously, the cumulative effect of 2020 has proven devastating.  The countless memes it has generated are a reliable testament to that (e.g “Cue the murder hornets!” and “Apocalypse Bingo”).

In a year when so much seems so wrong, the natural reaction feels like it ought to be to simply weather the storm, try to not get sick or committed to the asylum.  Dodge the bullet.  Just try to wait it out and hope to begin dreaming, loving, and achieving again next year.  Save self-improvement for 2021.  That makes sense.  “To everything, there is a season,” right?  This year definitely feels biblical, so maybe this is just the season of our lives to hunker down and ride it out, having faith that next year must be better.

That idea soothes me.  It placates me, softening my usual urgency for personal and global improvement, lets me off the hook for my recent lack of achievement and production.  My guilt is assuaged.  I appreciate the pass for 2020.

But I can’t help being suspicious of it.  I tend to disbelieve any philosophy that tells me it is okay to stop learning, growing, and making my life and my world better.  Sure, I understand that our ambition ebbs and flows along our journey, and I try to listen to my intuition about how hard I need to push in a given season.  And I am a huge fan of self-care and filling up one’s tank when it is running low so you can face the challenges of the present and the future.  On top of that, I realize that some of these blows that 2020 continues to deliver require true grieving—they are just that painful–which takes its own time.  Still, my internal dashboard is always measuring for Progress.  I am naturally monitoring myself for signs of growth and surveying the world around me for ways I can both use my talents for good and be enriched.  I am also naturally optimistic, so I live with the assumption that all situations can lead to better ones, and Growth is ours to claim.

With those traits in my nature, I should not be surprised at my response to the wildfires in the West (which are sending their smoke across the country as though to remind us that we are all in this together and no one gets away clean).  Even in my deepest despair, I cling to the idea that we must learn and grow from our situations. 

But have I?  This year, I mean.  Have I hunkered down and simply tried to survive—which may be enough, honestly, depending on how close to home each crisis has struck—or have I found any ways for these calamities to improve my life or the world around me?

I would say I have done very little directly for the world (e.g. I protested for racial justice and wrote some pieces, but I definitely didn’t write often enough), but I have improved myself in subtle but certain ways.  Much of it has come in the form of solidifying my priorities and values.  The pandemic, with its extra time to think and the need to stay in one place with only the people in my household, has served to thrust those values and priorities into bold relief, forcing an examination and a culling of the excesses and the things that just don’t feel authentic and uplifting anymore.  And because all of these other tragedies and tensions have occurred inside of the pandemic, each has received a thorough vetting in the recesses of my mind and the pages of my journal.

It has become increasingly clear to me this year that my family is the most important thing.  It turns out that I chose the right wife, and my kids are the right ones for me.  With all of this working and schooling from home and acting as each other’s playmates, teachers, and co-workers, I can only imagine how many families are at each other’s throats during all of these overlapping crises.  For all of my pre-family-life worry and fear I had over whether I could exist—much less be happy—with the responsibilities of a husband and father, I am so glad that I ended up with these guys.  I feel much better about that now, and I believe that foundation will support me no matter what else I have to face.

In watching the way my country’s institutions and people have handled (or mishandled) the crises of 2020, I have become even more deeply committed to moral and political positions I have held in the past.  The coronavirus pandemic has made crystal clear what a failure of leadership looks like.  In the halls of Congress and the White House, and in examples from different governors and mayors from around the country, I have seen examples of the best and worst kinds of politicians.  It has affirmed for me that, even though I am not a fan of our two-party system and neither party acts exactly as I wish they would, the folks that at least lean my way are doing so much more basic Good for ordinary Americans—that is, almost all of us—than the ones leaning the other way.  The particular political issues that have come into relief through the crises—climate science with the wildfires, health care coverage with the coronavirus and its ensuing unemployment, voting rights and women’s rights with the deaths of John Lewis and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, racial injustice with the murders of George Floyd and others, and the need to protect our democracy with the regular assaults on it by the President—have made me feel stronger in my positions than ever before.  My conviction has multiplied.  I have become even more of Me.

These things have also cast each of my relationships and potential relationships into the light, making me very protective of the kind of people I want to keep in my life now and let into it in the future.  Though my heart will be wide open with love, I have no doubt also that the gate will be well-guarded.  Boundaries are beautiful.

These overlapping crises and the time I have had to consider them has made these things very clear to me.  I am certain that this clarity will make me a happier person going forward, better able to see my way and also better able to use my gifts to serve the world and all of the beautiful souls finding their way through it.  Though I am eager for this year and its many calamities to be behind me, I can honestly say I am grateful for it.  I will come out the other side of 2020 as a better person.

How about you?  Have you managed to grow and improve your world amidst the stress and tragedy of this year?  Open up your journal and write out your own version of a progress report.  What changes have you gone through internally as the various crises of 2020 have piled on top of one another?  What is your balance of “just trying to ride it out” versus “I can thrive in this” mentality?  How different is that balance this year compared to a “normal” year?  Which aspects of the year’s drama—coronavirus, job loss, racial injustice and protests, social isolation, change of routine, economic stress, climate emergencies, death of heroes, murder hornets, political drama—tend to send you into self-preservation mode, where simple survival is the goal and personal growth seems out of the question?  In which areas have you made efforts to address the issue head-on and learn more about it to achieve better clarity in your position and/or take action in the world to help the cause?  How has that effort changed you?  If this year has had you “stuck” at home more often and unable to physically interact with others much, how have you dealt with that?  What have you learned about yourself through that aspect of the experience?  Did you reach any conclusions about yourself that caused you to make any major changes?  Do you feel like you have clarified who you really are this year?  What do you value most?  What are your top priorities?  Are there things that you have reduced or eliminated from your life in this process?  What about people?  How has seeing your “friends” react to this year on social media (e.g. their responses to George Floyd’s murder) changed the way you feel about them or their place in your life going forward?  If you have let some habits or people go, do you feel lighter and more authentic for it?  Have you started some new habits?  Are they healthy or unhealthy?  Can you point to anything specific in your world where you are making a more positive impact than you were before this crazy year happened?  Is it enough just to know that you are bringing a better self out into your regular life each day?  If you feel like you haven’t spun any of 2020’s calamities into growth experiences, how might you start today?  No matter what you have done to this point, which crisis area feels ripe for your next growth spurt?  I hope you will take on the challenge.  Leave me a reply and let me know: How have you turned 2020’s many lemons into lemonade?

Rise,

William

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

P.P.S. If you appreciate this sort of personal introspection, I encourage you to purchase my book, Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth, at your favorite online retailers.

Missed Connections: Are Your Conversations Deep Dives Or Surface Skims?

“Good conversation is as stimulating as black coffee and just as hard to sleep after.” –Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift From The Sea 

“Sometimes when it looks like I’m deep in thought I’m just trying not to have a conversation with people.” –Pete Wentz

Hello friend,

At a recent holiday gathering with my immediate family, we were chatting outside on the deck when up pulled a crew of more distant relatives, many of whom I hardly know.  I am naturally reserved—probably ‘unsocial’ is more accurate—in such situations, inclined to disappear until the crowd passes through.  There was one cousin with them, however, who holds a special place in my heart, even if we don’t keep in touch beyond the photos on Facebook.  I am interested in her life and have always imagined that we could be close if the logistics of our lives matched up better.

In spite of my well-practiced social distancing precautions, I was pleased when she moved through the family and over to where I was observing the scene.  I greeted her warmly, and we proceeded to spend the next several minutes getting caught up on her family news.  Before long, my brother drifted over and started chatting with her, and our window together closed.  A few minutes later, she was gone with the rest of the visitors, probably out of my sight for a few more years.

It was a nothing conversation, but the moment seems to keep returning to my mind in these receding days.  We had a few minutes, a window.  Although it is, of course, the norm to do the standard check-in and small-talk—How long are you in town?  How is your Mom?  Do you like living in Anytown?  Blah blah blah…–we didn’t have to.  Knowing that she is an avid reader, the very first question I asked her instead could have been about the best book she has read lately, or her top five authors, or her favorite memoir (my go-to genre).  Now that would have been a good conversation!  Instead of lamenting her departure because we hadn’t really connected, as happened this time, I could have lamented being unable to finish a gripping exchange of ideas that likely would have ended with a promise to message me a list of suggestions.  Those are two very different laments.

I can tell that the reason this seemingly forgettable interaction remains unforgettable to me is that it was a wasted opportunity to feel alive.  Isn’t that what a good conversation is?  That deep connection to another human being in a moment, however brief, is the spark of Life itself.

I love Life.  I crave it in its various forms, including the ripple of the stream, the song of the bird, the breeze on my skin, and the rising of the sun.  Humans are in there, too, sharing their Life with me through their art, their compassion, their aspiration, and their acts of true love.

And yes, their conversation.  Real conversation.  Impassioned, curious, well-listened, and deeply felt conversation.  When it is fully engaged in both the give and the take, a conversation—whether it is silly or sad, with a stranger or a friend—is a priceless gem.  And like that gem, it is, unfortunately, too rare.  We just don’t take that deep, beautiful dive often enough.  Like me with my cousin, the window closes, perhaps never to be opened again with that person.

It would be easy and cliché to say that in this age of social media and texting, our faces in our screens preclude us from making those meaningful connections and having those heart-to-hearts.  But I don’t know that I believe that.  I have hung around plenty of people from older, less-techie generations and found their chatter to be nearly all of the small and space-filling variety.  And maybe these screens—provided we are willing to put them down from time to time—are so saturated with juicy information on every topic imaginable that everyone can find something that they are passionate about learning and sharing with someone else who is willing to lock eyes and listen.  Maybe these screens are the gateway to deeper conversation, not more shallow.  I hope so.

I believe in our ability to converse and to light each other up in the process.  What I am less sure of is our courage.  Let’s face it, when you attempt to go below the surface with someone, you don’t know what kind of reception you will get.  For one, these attempts are so rare, especially in traditional small-talk zones—sidelines of sporting events, walking in your neighborhood, pubs, grocery stores—so people can be taken aback by your probing and your full attention (sadly, something we also rarely seem to give).

But if you can catch someone in that perfect moment when you are both willing to be open, present, and vulnerable, Magic can happen. 

I am the first one to admit I don’t like talking with most people.  My soul sensors are fine-tuned to detect people whose energies align with mine and those who don’t.  I passionately dislike anything in life that feels like a waste of my time—errands, lines, traffic, meetings, small-talk, the list goes on—and that includes spending time with people who don’t ignite something special in my heart or mind.  Knowing that about myself, it crystallizes my challenge: to take full advantage of every moment to converse with these captivating people, to not waste any words on small-talk, but rather to plunge directly into a meaningful exchange of ideas and energies.

I have to be more opportunistic with these rare moments and more efficient about getting into the meaty portion of people’s minds.  I have to launch into my best questions from the outset rather than participate in the standard opening, anesthetic nonsense about the weather, the outfits, and the appetizers on offer.

And rather than just waiting around hoping that I happen upon one of my favorite people and that they happen to have time for me at that moment, I also need to be better about seeking them out.  This directive struck me hard this week as I was strolling through the Twitterverse.  Amidst all of the politics and pop culture, I stumbled upon this humble gem by the octogenarian news man Dan Rather (who happens to be a fountain of simple wisdom): That person you keep thinking, “I should call them.”  You should.  Do it.  Pass it on.

That seemingly innocuous little note had the effect of simultaneously slapping me in the face and kicking me in the butt, giving me a wake-up call about all the people I so often think about talking to but never make the effort to reach them.  Dan is right.  I need to do it.  My life would be infinitely richer for it.

I want that richer life.  I want those richer conversations.  I guess it all circles back to that issue of Courage.  If you want something—in this case, a richer life full of deep, meaningful exchanges with fascinating people who stir my soul—and you know what it takes to get it, you have to be willing to stick your neck out.  I have to be willing to feel awkward in order to feel energized and enlightened.  I have to be brave enough to follow my “Hello” with a question I really want to know the answer to, one that can stimulate a lively exchange.  I must set aside my anxiety about picking up the phone and calling someone who hasn’t heard from me in a long time.  I must display the same courage that I implore you to summon.  That seems only fair.  I can do that.

Hello, World, I am ready to converse!

How about you?  How open and assertive are you in your pursuit of good conversation?  Open up your journal and wade through your interactions with the people in your life.  How deeply are you reaching below the surface in your usual conversations with the people you are interested in?  Not the people whom you cannot avoid in the regular course of your day—at your job or in your neighborhood or your hangouts—but the people whom you would choose to interact with; nobody wants to take a deep dive with someone they can barely tolerate.  So, for those intriguing characters in your world, how aggressively do you pursue their true nature and interests?  In your encounters with them, do you make it a point to raise topics that will lead to a lively exchange and perhaps some personal growth for each of you?  Do you try to draw out their life story?  Do you probe for their opinions on important matters, whether the politics of the day or a life situation you are struggling with?  Do you ask them to educate you on something you don’t understand?  If they are natural storytellers, do you try to coax them into a fascinating or funny tale?  Do you request specific favorites or lists, such as favorite books, movies, music, vacations, games, foods, etc. that you know will spark a spirited discussion?  Which of these types of inquiries seems to work best for you to get the kind of feedback and deep connection that satisfies you?  How aware are you of the quality of the conversation as you are having it?  How much time typically passes after you have had a wonderful give-and-take before you realize its rewards and think to yourself, “I want to do that again!”?  How often do you find yourself in one of these discussions?  Do you usually arrive there intentionally or accidentally?  How often does an interaction end leaving you with some regret—like me with my cousin—that you didn’t make the effort to go deeper?  Do you think it is because you lacked the courage in the moment to probe them, or were you just not mindful enough of how shallow the conversation was until after it was over, stuck in the habits of our usual superficiality?  Why are we so superficial in general?  Is it just a matter of practicality, us being unable to take a deep dive very often due to things like time constraints and other people overhearing what we would like kept private?  Or are we afraid of being vulnerable, of exposing things about ourselves that will be open to judgment from others?  Or are we shallow?  On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being shallow and 10 being deep, how deep are your conversations with the people you want to connect with?  How do you think that number compare to the average person?  How does it compare to the people you admire the most?  Who are those people?  Who in your life—whether it’s been 10 minutes or 10 years since you have spoken to them–would you love to get a phone call or a visit from so you can share stories, ideas, and passions?  How often do you think about calling or visiting them?  How much would it enrich your life?  What keeps you from doing it?  Does that fear or justification feel more important than the joy, the growth, and the inspiration that the connection would bring to you (and to them)?  If you could pick just one person to reach out to today for whatever reason, who would it be?  What would you ask them?  What would you share?  I dare you!  How much deeper do you want your connections to be?  How much richer do you want your life to be?  Are the two answers the same?  What is your next step to go further below the surface?  Leave me a reply and let me know: Are your conversations satisfying to your soul?

Take the plunge,

William

P.S. If this letter resonated with you, please share it.  Let it be another way to deepen your relationships.

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

The Joy Of A New Toy: Why Adults Need Fun Stuff, Too

“We don’t really grow up.  Our toys change with time.” –Nitya Prakash

“Life is more fun if you play games.” –Roald Dahl, My Uncle Oswald

Hello friend,

On a lovely recent evening, I was out in the yard playing with my wife and kids, when up to the curb zoomed a turquoise motorbike.  You know the kind: not quite fast enough to be on the freeway with the “real” motorcycles, but fast enough to give you a jolt of adrenaline and make you feel carefree as you zip around town in the fresh air.  Anyway, there it was in front of my house.  Just as I was thinking, “Oh, I bet that’s fun,” the driver pulled off her helmet and revealed herself as a friend who lives down the way a few blocks, smiling in the delight of her adventure.  She had only had her new toy for a few days, as we came to learn, and it was obvious that the novelty had not worn off.

She was clearly tickled by it, and her giddiness came through as she described the whole process from longing to owning.  She said she had wanted one for several years and told herself that if she made it to 40—she is a multiple cancer survivor and has a keen sense of how few and precious our days are—that she would treat herself to her dream ride.  So, a few weeks early (which is even better, I think), she picked out her favorite color, named it Shirley after her grandmother, and sped out of the dealership with a hoot and a smile from ear to ear (or so I picture it).

I loved everything about her story, and I could tell from her glow that the splurge was already worth it.  How do you put a price on pure Delight?  Joy and Freedom, though often hard won after years of psychological strain and slow maturity, sometimes also just come in a package.  Or off a dealer’s lot.  I absolutely love it when I hear of people—grown people–finding that toy that makes their soul dance and their heart sing.  Those are my favorite stories.  They show people displaying what I think of as Courage, a willingness to reach out and stake a claim to their own Joy, sometimes (though definitely not always) at the cost of their hard-earned money that some people in their life will no doubt say is being thrown away on childish silliness.  I say, “PLAY ON!”

I seem to spend most of my life in search of those toys that scratch the many itches of my soul.  I place a high premium on Delight.  I feel it deepest when I feel free.  I feel most free when I am creating or playing (outdoors), the times when I have cut myself free from the usual psychological chains around my existence.  So I seek those out those experiences.  And when I find a toy that facilitates that Freedom and thus that Delight, I fantasize (and often obsess) and save and, when I am lucky, make it mine.

I need only think of things I have had on my Christmas List or saved up “Birthday Money” for in recent years to see what lights me up.  Journals.  Guitar.  Kayak.  Computer and iPad.  Pens.  Tent.  Bike.  Camera.  Hammock.  RipStick.  Music.  Headphones.  When I look at these things that have been my splurges, I see a lot of escape.  So many different ways to be free, to play, to relax, to release my creativity, to let it all go.  Those are the makings of a good toy, right?

Freedom and Expression are wonders that we don’t necessarily allow ourselves on a day-to-day basis, whether because we get lost in our busy-ness and the tedium of our many tasks, or because we don’t feel worthy of “spoiling” ourselves with treats and Delight.  I wish we weren’t so much this way.  Life is just so short, and it is plenty difficult without us denying ourselves of the experiences that excite our spirits.  Aren’t these the real tools of Self-Care?  I appreciate someone who mines their sources of Joy and Freedom with a determined passion.  They seem to know a secret that eludes the majority of us.

I recall many years ago, as a young adult, an old friend asking how my brother was.  After I replied that he was doing well, the person said, “He always seems to be doing something fun.”  That struck me at my core.  I knew I wasn’t really doing it right, that people probably weren’t saying that about me.  I have been trying to do better ever since.

Speaking of my brother: he has the quintessential toy that keeps on delivering on the Freedom and Delight that define a toy’s purpose.  When he was 16, after pining for years, he convinced my old man to get him this old Jeep that had been rotting forever unused on the family farm.  He and his buddies spent months getting it to run and painting it Coca-Cola red with black trim.  It was the best kind of toy for a teenage boy: open air cab without doors or roof, big speakers, romping through mud with your buddies, attracting the teenage girls.  It had it all.  What makes it truly rule Toyland, though, is that it still has it all.  Yes, more than three decades later, when the weather warms up each Spring, I still get a text with a new video of him cruising around in the fresh air with his kids in “The Freedom Machine,” as it is so appropriately named.  Freedom.  Release.  Joy.  An expression of the soul.  That’s a toy!  And that’s what we so desperately need at every age.

I suppose everyone has a different idea of what will do that for them.  I think of things that are still on my list: a big-screen iPad Pro with Magic Keyboard, snow shoes, jet ski, a great bike rack and new mountain bike to go with it, Photoshop, and a ukulele.  In one form or another, they are all tickets to ride.  Means to adventure and to create, to be outdoors and to express what is inside of me.  Seeing that commonality is helpful to me, a map toward more treats, more fun.  In that vein, I can also understand my friend’s motorbike impulse, and my brother’s history of skis and windsurfers and such (and his recent dirt bike purchase).  I can also see anything artistic: paint sets, sketchbooks, musical instruments, journals (of course!), and apps for things like graphics and movie-making.  I once saved up for a fancy blender, so I can understand people for whom a toy might be an Instant Pot, a stand mixer, or cake decorating set.  I get anything that is a connector to Mother Nature, which could be a million different things, including a new pair of walking shoes, a headlamp, binoculars, backpack, gardening tools, swimming goggles, and a golf club.  I recently got Apple Music, and believe me, I have been like a kid in a candy store ever since, delighting in the wonder of such a vast library of transcendence and escape.  It is infinite Delight.

I’m sure there are plenty of other ways to conceive of a toy, too.  It can obviously be a splurge of a purchase, but it can also be something inexpensive that sets you free creatively or psychologically.  Whatever it is for you, the thought of it has to stir up your heart with butterflies and waves of excitement or longing.  The getting of it has to scratch a major itch of the soul, making you giddy at the Joy, Freedom, and Release it will provide.  It must bring genuine Delight.  It has to be your Freedom Machine.

I plan to keep playing and keep fantasizing about new toys until the end of my happy adventure through Life.

How about you?  What sorts of toys still light you up inside?  Open up your journal and your memory, and try to recall all of the things of your adulthood that have truly been a Delight for your mind and your heart.  What things come immediately to mind?  Are they adult versions of conventional kid toys, like bicycles or video games or dolls?  Or are they things only an adult might like, such as an Instant Pot or a chainsaw?  Do you gravitate toward artistic/creative toys, like cameras, musical instruments, paints, and journals?  Do you like things that will provide an adrenaline rush to an otherwise not-so-thrilling existence, things like motorcycles, snowboards, and sleds?  Are you a gadget person, preferring things like drones, tablets, and fitness trackers?  Are kitchen toys your thing?  Apps?  What about exercise toys, like home gyms, fancy bikes, or running gear?  How about outdoorsy stuff, such as tents, water filters, and trekking poles?  Is music a toy for you?  Books?  What is it that excites you about each thing on your list?  Taken as a whole, do you see common themes running through?  Are they similar to my Freedom and Expression themes, or quite different?  Do the things that bring you Delight tend to cost a lot of money, or are they rather inexpensive?  If you could splurge on one big-ticket item right now that would make you absolutely giddy, what would it be?  What else is on your current Wish List?  Do the themes of this Wish List mirror the themes of the list of adult toys you already have?  Are your soul itches still essentially the same, or have they evolved as you have aged?  What kinds of toys once appealed to you but no longer do?  What are your newest desires?  Can you pinpoint the reasons for your changes?  Are you clearer now about what tickles you?  Will you ever be too old to seek out toys and to play?  Which toy that you use now will you still be using decades from now?  What gives that toy its timelessness?  How well have you done throughout your life at treating yourself to toys and allowing yourself to play?  Is their enough Fun in your life right now?  What is one toy that you could reasonably treat yourself to immediately in order to give your spirit a boost?  Will you?  If not now, when?  Leave me a reply and let me know: Do you still feel a childlike Delight with a new toy?

Let your spirit fly,

William

P.S. If this letter resonated with you today, please share it with someone who might need it.  We could all use a little boost from our friends once in a while.

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

Silver Linings: In Search Of The Positives In A Pandemic

“Hope can be a powerful force. Maybe there’s no actual magic in it, but when you know what you hope for most and hold it like a light within you, you can make things happen, almost like magic.” –Laini Taylor, Daughter of Smoke & Bone 

“In a time of destruction, create something.” –Maxine Hong Kingston

“I don’t think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.” –Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl

Hello friend,

I have had moments of anger during this pandemic, such as when I see my neighbors having yet another play date with their children’s friends and parents, ignoring all science and government warnings and putting the rest of us in danger (and keeping us home even longer) because they lack either the will power to resist their social nature or the moral fiber to care about their potential damage.

I have had moments of deep sadness, too, such as when I read the social media post of the nurse who had flown to New York to help in a hospital, who had just had her patient die, and she reported that they had 17 deaths in their 17-bed unit that night. How does that NOT break you?

I have had moments of fear and anxiety as well, each week when I go to the grocery store and when I think about the possibility of my wife losing her job or a family member needing a hospital visit.

I have felt at least some degree of all the negative stuff that I am guessing you and your loved ones have felt during this unusual time. And though currents of them dash in and out of my atmosphere like phantom winds, I can say with some certainty that–with the notable exception of the first few days following the cancellation of my vacation, as I shared in my last letter–I have not let the negative overtake me. Some of that, I am sure, can be chalked up to the fact that I have been lucky. My family has money coming in, food in the refrigerator, health insurance, and none of my loved ones have contracted Covid-19. Relative to what other people are dealing with and will deal with, I have a dream gig going here right now.

The rest of it, though, seems to be attributed to my psychological make-up. I am a glass-half-full kind of guy by nature, and I tend to have my radar up and tracking the potential blessings in any situation. In the course of my day, I tend to find the fun, the kind, and the beautiful that is available to all but seemingly noticed by few. I have been blessed by an inclination toward those things and a willingness to train my eye to find more. It leaves me uncommonly grateful and, by extension, happy.

So, amidst the throes of the rampant sadness, frustration, anger, fear, and anxiety that seem so common and expected in this unprecedented age, I have found myself all the more determined to uncover the blessings and the good that might come of it. In this storm of storms, I am looking for silver linings.

It is easy to latch onto the most popular ones, which start with the frontline medical personnel. These people are just amazing to me. I look at me, not wanting to so much as leave my yard because I don’t want to closely interact with anyone and risk getting the virus and subsequently passing it to my family members. Then I look at the emergency room staff and first responders, going into work every day nearly certain that they are going to get it, if not today then tomorrow. There was the video that went viral a few weeks ago of the man in scrubs coming home and his tiny child running to greet him. It broke my heart to watch him have to suddenly keep her from excitedly running into his arms for a hug. Anyone who has ever been a parent knows that is probably the single greatest feeling in the world. To think that there are people like that all over the world, voluntarily eschewing the proximity and affection of their loved ones in order to continue serving the sickest among us, well, that is simultaneously both deeply saddening and incredibly inspiring.

All of the other frontline workers are so uplifting for me as well, even as I fret for their safety. I go out to the grocery store once a week and, as I am standing in the long, spread-out line for my turn to pay, I am absolutely spellbound watching the employees–these folks barely, if even, making a living wage for their services–ringing people up. It boggles my mind how they keep doing it day after day. I am so grateful for them.

Obviously there are very few people who signed up for this gig, whatever it is they are doing in this new age. Nearly everyone’s job, if they still have one, has changed. So many public-facing difference-makers–the teachers, the coaches, the therapists–can no longer do their jobs in a way that they can feel the daily difference they are making. There are a lot of teachers in my life, and I know that it pains them to have to “only” deliver educational modules to their students through a computer every day rather than their usual nurturing of the whole, complex person for the 25 or 30 growing souls in their classroom. They don’t get to directly help them through their challenges and witness that spark in the eye when the light bulb comes on or the hug of gratitude and love when it is most needed. I exchanged a message with one of my colleagues about this, and she lamented, “Distance learning is like planning, shopping, wrapping, and sending the perfect gift for someone you adore, but never getting to see them open it or know if they even like the present.” But teachers keep pouring their all into it because our children depend on them even in their absence. Those kind of people inspire me.

There are so many others, of course, whether they work on the front lines or are struggling because so much has changed behind the lines but they keep putting one foot in front of the other because the world needs them. I am even inspired by the people who, unlike me, are so wildly social at their core and need company like they need oxygen, but are choosing to be good humans and stay home. There are admirable sacrifices all around if your eyes are open to them.

One thing that tickles me these days is seeing so many people out walking, running, or bicycling in their neighborhoods. I have always loved visiting “active” towns–usually in places embedded in the mountains or by the ocean–where it seems like everyone is an outdoors enthusiast and people are moving their bodies wherever you look. My community is not typically one of those hubs of energy, but it sure has become one in the last month. I have never walked so much in my life, and I get the sense everyone else could say the same. I love seeing them all out and active. It energizes me. I hope we can keep that outdoor momentum going even when gyms and stores open up again. There is new life in the fresh air.

I also take great joy and inspiration in some of the new opportunities that people, especially artists, have created and made available online during this time. The actor John Krasinski’s YouTube broadcast from home, Some Good News, has been a delight, and I highly recommend it. I have also loved the “quarantine concerts” that so many musicians have put on their social media, whether it is a daily song (I have been digging Michael Franti on Facebook) or weekly concerts (I adore Matt Nathanson’s weekly events from his home office on YouTube, during which he sings songs and reads beautiful passages from books of poetry or wisdom that inspire him) or those big sing-along collaborations that artists have been putting together through ZOOM. There is nothing like music to lift the spirit, and these times ought to give us a greater sense of the necessity of the arts in our society. I have also appreciated those virtual tours of some of the world’s greatest museums and our national parks, both the sights themselves and the thoughtfulness of the people bringing them to us.

Though all of these inspirations have flashed regularly across my radar throughout the pandemic, the one ray of Hope that has grown exponentially in my mind as the weeks have passed falls under the theme “How We Might Grow From This Experience.” I am enchanted by the possibility of some sort of simultaneous mass realization of the errors of our former, “normal” ways and a subsequent move toward a more highly idealized society, perhaps even to the extent of an evolutionary leap in the behavior of our species. Might we take advantage of this collective pause in our society–one that is unlikely to ever happen again in our lifetimes–and use it to gain wisdom in the direction of a world that is more peaceful, equitable, and just? Might we come to value each other more? Might we come to value our time more? I desperately hope so.

What kinds of things might this translate to? Maybe it is as simple as choosing our commitments–whether to individual people or activities or groups–more discerningly. Now that we have been pulled out of our sports, clubs, churches, stores, meet-ups, coffee shops, restaurants, classes, and gyms, I hope that we are using the time away from them to better understand how much we (individually) need each one of our diversions. Even though most of us are going stir-crazy in our homes, we may also be realizing for the first time that perhaps it would be wise to begin prioritizing some downtime at home when “real life” resumes. As we have been removed from nearly all of the people in our usual routines, I hope that we are realizing which of those people are really not a positive influence on us and perhaps which are more deserving of our time and energy. Maybe we need more quality and less quantity, both in people and scheduled activities.

I also hope that this time–with its isolation, its anxiety, its uncertainty–leads us to put a greater premium on our mental health and self-care. I hope it becomes easier and “more normal” to talk about mental health and to understand that the issues that we have been hiding are so very common in our community.

I hope that it becomes more obvious–and more painful in the realization–that the poorest among us consistently bear the burdens of our crises to a far greater degree than the wealthiest. It is the poor who are both put on the front lines of exposure in times like this–cashiers, janitors, delivery drivers, etc.–and also more likely to lose their jobs, being in positions less likely to have a work-from-home option. I hope that in this time that we suddenly have to think more clearly and become more aware of the realities of our usual set-up, we find it in ourselves as a society to become more compassionate of those most in need and more aware of our own, typically-unearned privilege.

Along the same lines of this potential growing awareness, I have been increasingly hopeful that this health-crisis-turned-economic crisis might make it more clear to the average citizen how much more humane a single-payer, “Medicare for all” health care system would be. I think of the more than 22 million people who have lost their jobs in the first four weeks of this collapse, and how many millions of people that takes off of health coverage. I am up-front about the fact that I have long been in favor of a universal health care system in America, seeing health care as no less a natural right than a “free” public education or police and fire protection, as I have written to you about in the past. It has always seemed crazy to me that we don’t have this system in place and instead spend far more per capita on health care than other “civilized” countries for generally worse results, not to mention leaving tens of millions of our citizens uncovered and poorly covered to the point that they don’t take care of basic medical needs. It embarrasses me as an American. If we have to go past the idea that it is a basic human right–which we should not; that ought to be the start and end of the discussion as to the necessity of universal coverage–I have always found it sad and tragic that the reason so many people stay in jobs rather than quit or change or try to start their own business or pursue a dream is because of the loss of health insurance. The current system is, in so many different, insidious ways, breaking our spirit. And now we have tens of millions of newly unemployed, resulting in millions of families losing their health coverage. How many people lost their coverage due to the pandemic in the rest of the world? Zero. Because they have humane systems. I have been surprised and disappointed that we have not seen more spoken and written about this in the traditional and social media as the numbers of unemployed pile up. It is my hope that people will see that now is the perfect moment in our history to do right by each other. Health coverage for everyone would be a giant step in the right direction. I remain hopeful that hearts and eyes will open.

It is this and so many other structural, systemic issues that I am looking toward in this time, hoping we open our hearts and minds to find the compassion and the wisdom to see our “we’ve just always done it this way” as a compilation of attitudes and tactics that have simply not served us all as well as we may have hoped. But I see people doing right by others, helping and giving and supporting. And I see others who want to be a part of a better world, who want fewer people to suffer and more people to get along, who want the resources spread out more equitably. I see all of that good action and good intention, and they make me hopeful. They give me light in a time that could too easily turn dark.

There are so many good people out there. You know that. So many lights. So many silver linings to this storm. You can find them almost anywhere you look. It seems to me that with this many good people, we deserve to live in a world whose structures–be they social, political, economic, or otherwise–serve to provide or facilitate all of those positive intentions and gestures of good will. But the responsibility is upon each of us to both do better in our own little corner of the world and to raise our voices to demand better of our larger structures. We must use this collective, reflective moment to consider the ways that our religions, our education systems, our health care systems, our political institutions, our judicial systems, our use of science, our natural resource consumption, and our philosophy of diplomacy and warfare facilitate the kind of goodness that is in our hearts. If we deem that those systems are not representative of our goodness, we need to rise up and demand that changes be made. And we must do whatever is in our own power to see those changes through. We must be the bringers of our own light.

This pandemic era is difficult. It is angering, frustrating, depressing, and anxiety-inducing. But it is also so much more, and its potential for a positive outcome is massive. Even with the scars that we will no doubt carry from this era, we could actually come away with a more caring, compassionate, equitable, just, and peaceful planet, both the humans and the systems designed to help the humans live their best lives. I see the possibilities all around me. I see it in hearts and gestures. If you are having a hard time seeing that light in your world, I hope you will find it in yourself. It is there, my friend, just waiting to be discovered. I am happy to lend you some of mine in the meantime. I have hope for you, hope for us. With so many beautiful examples out there to use as a guide and this quiet moment to steel my resolve, I am inspired to find out just how high we right rise. Together.

How about you? Where do you look for hope and inspiration in this time of crisis? Open up your journal and your heart and uncover the source of the light shining in? Where are you finding your positivity these days? Do you see it in the people in your community and the actions–or inaction–that they are taking? Which profession seems to awe you the most at this time? Medical personnel? Grocery store clerks? Delivery drivers? Janitorial workers? Teachers? Are you inspired by people’s willingness to stay home to limit the spread of the virus? What acts of personal generosity have you witnessed or been a part of that remind you of people’s goodness? Which people–individuals or groups–have you come to see in a more positive light as a result of the their actions during this pandemic? Are your own actions worthy of someone else’s inspiration? What other sources of positivity have you used lately that are unique to our current situation? Are there live events that you “attend” online, whether workouts or concerts? Do you watch TED talks? Have you started reading any books that you might otherwise have neglected were we not in a pandemic? What sorts of hopes do you have in the “How We Might Grow From This Experience” category? What realizations would you like us to have about our ways of living? What personal “A-HA”s have you had about your own lifestyle and priorities? Which aspects of our society has this crisis exposed for you in a way that you never realized before? Do you believe in our ability to at least begin large-scale, structural changes to the way we do things based on the lessons we are taking from this period? If so, what part do you see yourself playing in the positive change? How much light do you have to share? What sources of inspiration will you use as your fuel? Leave me a reply and let me know: What positives do you see emerging from this pandemic?  

Bring the light,

William

P.S. If today’s letter resonated with you, please share it with your community. This is a team effort!

P.P.S. If this type of introspection stirs something in you, consider buying my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers. Namaste.

First-World Grieving: Sadness & Loss In The Wake of COVID-19

“Every one of us is losing something precious to us. Lost opportunities, lost possibilities, feelings we can never get back again. That’s part of what it means to be alive.” –Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore 

“It’s so much darker when a light goes out than it would have been if it had never shone.” –John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent

Hello friend,

“It’s all over,” I thought to myself as I stood, shoulders slumped, by my bed in the dark. “The whole world is shutting down now.” Seconds before, my alarm had jolted me upright in the dark hours of morning. I had just climbed out from under the sheets and started for the bathroom so I could be at the gym when it was still quiet–my usual routine. The alarm had also stirred my wife, who, knowing where I was headed, rolled over and said, “The gym is closed. They sent out an announcement last night.”

It felt like all of the life went out of me. My window of escape was closing rapidly, and I knew it. I didn’t want to say it out loud, but I knew it. Just the day before, as the closures and cancellations were beginning to gather momentum, I was still willing our vacation into being, ignoring the signs and buying goggles and sandals for the beach and pool. The world just had to hang on for a couple more days so I could get to the ocean, then it could take away its concerts and large gatherings all it wanted. I would be in peace on the water with my little family. It just had to be so.

Thoughts of the beach and the pool were all that filled my quiet moments for the past three months, maybe more. We have been going to our special spot on Spring Break for the last few years, so the fantasies in my mind were crystal clear. It is just the right speed, just the right activities, and just the right vibe. For my liking, you cannot beat the combination of water, warmth, and sunshine. All the better that I get to see my parents and a best friend.   Every day and every place we go while there is perfect for me, for my wife, and for the kids. Everyone is giddy about getting there, blissful while there, and so sad to leave. For me, it is the trip I look forward to all the year long. It becomes an obsession the nearer I get to it. I needed this trip! So, needless to say, being only a couple of days away, I was downright manic in my excitement to get there when the news of COVID-19 started to become more ominous and the feeling of the window closing began to creep in.

Denial is a powerful force, though, and I was in no frame of mind to let my obsession go. My bag was already packed! I could practically taste the saltwater. I was not able to think clearly about anything. I was seeing friends on Facebook on their Spring Breaks. My niece was sending photos of her trip to the same place we were going. It was all right there. I was so close!

My wife, whose mantra over the preceding weeks was, “Just get me on that plane! You can quarantine me on the beach if it comes to that,” was constantly monitoring travel recommendations, and nothing was saying we couldn’t go. My belief began to crack, however, as the CDC recommendations for the size of gatherings hit 100 people. Even in my delusion and denial, it was not a stretch for me to start thinking, “There are more than 100 people outside the gate, and there are definitely more on the airplane.”

Still, my will to go was strong, and with no government directive to cease travel, I began this sort of desperate self-justification process, making a last gasp of trying to convince myself it was acceptable. “If we could only just get through the airplane stuff,” I pleaded, “we would spend the rest of the week on an open expanse of beach, far from other people and their germs. Isn’t that enough?”

When my alarm sounded that morning, though, and my wife told me about the gym closing, it was like my last breath came out of me. There was no fight left. The dangerous reality of the virus and its exponential spread were suddenly facts to me, and I could deny them no longer. Social responsibility, which had been the elephant in the room that I had been trying to ignore, grabbed me by the shoulders and made me look him in the eye. When I finally did, I knew: I would be a selfish, irresponsible jerk to get on that plane, and perhaps also a merchant of Death. The trip I had been dreaming of for months was simply not going to happen.

I was absolutely crushed. Devastated. That night when I called my kids into my room individually to break their hearts with the news, I wanted to cry right along with them. It was terrible. I wasn’t torn about the decision anymore by that point; I was certain that it was the right thing to do. But it still hurt like hell.

I moped around the house for the next few days like my dog had been shot. It was hard to find light. I was weak, slumped, and slow. It was in the air all of the day, thoughts of times in past years that I would be missing out on this time. The first face-full of saltwater as I raced the kids to be the first one into the waves. Frisbee in the sand. Ice cream at the splash pad with my parents. Swimming races against my kids in the pool. Walking the shoreline with my wife, the water chasing its way up to our feet and then receding. Watching the pelicans dive for fish and the dolphins rise to breathe. Just being there. All beautiful, happy thoughts that made me sad to think about.

There were moments that were particularly difficult, mostly the ones that confirmed the reality that I would not be living that much-anticipated journey, such as calling my parents and friend to speak the words out loud and going to the grocery store to stock the refrigerator that I had been working diligently to empty before we left. The most poignant one was unpacking the suitcase I had filled with swimsuits, t-shirts, and sandals. That felt like a burial.

I’ve come out of it, though, at least part of the way. I still have moments when I realize what I have been missing or think about what I would be doing if we were there. When my Google Photos or Facebook memories pop up on my phone from one or two or three years ago “On This Date,” and I get to see all the fun we had and the memories made: those are bittersweet parts of my day now. I am glad I have the memories, but they are kind of a punch in the gut when they arise this week. But that pain is easing, if ever so slowly.

I can feel other losses in the wake of COVID-19, too, though thankfully not as intense as the loss of the dream week. I miss starting my day at the gym. I am still exercising at home when I wake up, but it’s not the same. There is little variety in my basement, and no pool or basketball court. I am not social at the gym–shocker, right?–so I don’t miss that part, but I feel terrible for the many senior citizens who go there less for the workout and more for the coffee and fellowship in the community room and find a real home there. That is all gone now.

I empathize with my kids, for though they aren’t necessarily dying to be back in school just yet, they definitely miss playing with their friends and being on sports teams and running out to join the neighbor kids in the cul-de-sac for games. They were bummed when the earliest possible date to resume school got bumped out to May. Connecting them with their cousins and friends on FaceTime or ZOOM helps, but there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction: wrestling, hugs, baking, high-fives, Girl Scout meetings, basketball games, sleepovers. So much stuff. I am sad about them missing that. And though my own kids are generally happy and stimulated and fed and safe when they are at home with me and my wife, I have worries about so many kids at their schools (and every school) who I know are struggling without the structure, socialization, food, and caring adults that their school provides for them. I am sad thinking about those vulnerable kids.

I always feel a bit silly and self-absorbed when I am tempted to claim any exceptional quality, so I tend to balk at claiming to be something of an empath (because maybe everyone feels this way and we just don’t talk about it). But here we are telling our Truths, so I will just say that I most often feel my sorrows or have my tears when I witness other people having theirs. I am less inclined to cry over my own misfortune than I am of yours, especially if I can see how it weighs on you. My heart feels yours, and that is more depressing to me than any burden of my own. That is what I am feeling more of as these days go on. I feel other people’s anxieties, fears, and sorrows and desperately wish there were more I could do to alleviate their pain. I would rather take it on my own shoulders.

And hey, I know I have it easy compared to most. I have very little desire to get together with people for work or play; I can imagine that part being the most depressing for a large percentage of people. I don’t typically enjoy going out to restaurants, bars, or even stores. At least for now, I can still get to parks to walk around and be with the trees, the water, and the fresh air. That tends to satisfy my soul. I actually enjoy my wife most of the time, and extra time playing with my kids is a treat for me. I can hardly imagine how sad, frustrating, and scary this time is for people who are extroverted, who love going out at night to eat and drink, prefer to shop and run errands, enjoy the coffee shop and the gym, whose “family” is their co-workers, who live alone but long for company, or who can’t stand the people they live with. Then multiply that for people who have lost their jobs and dreams; I shudder to think about it.

It will be interesting to see how the losses and our grieving evolve as the pandemic goes on (and on and on and on…). I know that my psyche will be vulnerable as our income declines. That will change my concerns dramatically. And who knows how the people around me will change as the weeks drag into months. Solitude and distancing affects everyone differently, but so does living in close quarters with only the same few people every day. Will they grow irritable, or get cabin fever, or become depressed? Will I? And how will we deal with each other when that happens? Will we spiral together, or will the least affected help the others to rise again? What will happen when more people that we love get sick and possibly die? All of these things, and more, are on the table. Suffice it to say that there is likely more loss and grieving to come.

I don’t want this letter to come across as just a big list of complaints against the Universe and a search for “Poor Me” sympathy, as that is not my style. And maybe in the next letter, we will look at all the blessings that this crazy time has brought us; that deserves its own space. But I also think it is important for us, as people who are working to uncover our Truth and to live authentically, to acknowledge our losses and speak to our grief. We can own those things without qualification. My loss of a long-dreamt-of vacation, or your loss of going into work at a place that you love, or someone else’s loss of the convenience of their favorite gym class or coffee drink need not be apologized for just because we know others have it worse. It’s not a contest. (And let’s face it: even the worst of our hardships in this time are much better than what people in war-torn countries face in normal times.) If you are grieving for anything in this unprecedented time, it is your job to name it and process it and do your best to eventually come around to Gratitude for it, however long that may require. That is the job of Life, actually.

I wish I were swimming in that turquoise water right now, basking in the warmth and sunshine, and WooHooing at my kids as we ride the waves to shore. It breaks my heart that I am not. And that is my Truth.

How about you? What losses and sadness have you suffered from the COVID-19 pandemic? Open up your journal and your heart and share some of your low points from the beginning of a difficult time in our history. What is the biggest loss you have felt in this early phase? Have you canceled a vacation or important event that you had looked forward to? How disappointing was that? Enough to bring tears? Is it still bumming you out? How much does the current social distancing and isolation play upon your psyche? Do you miss your friends, relatives, and co-workers? Do you miss the people you serve in your life (customers, students, patients, clients, etc.)? If you still have your job, how has its meaning changed for you? Does it make you sad to work alone? How have your relationships changed with the (hopefully) few people you still have face-to-face contact with, especially those who live with you? Does the containment cause the relationships to deteriorate? How has your financial situation and outlook changed as a result of the pandemic? How much of a weight is that to carry around with you? What about the little things that have just broken your rhythm (e.g. the gym closing) or kept you from your usual treats (e.g. a favorite coffee shop)? Does that kind of thing get to you? How difficult is it for you to live with being aware of all the pain and suffering that people around the world are feeling right now? Are other people’s sorrows much of a burden to you? What do you grieve most about your changed life? How do you imagine your sorrows will evolve as the weeks and months go on? Do you need help? Are you getting it now, and are you in a position to get it when you need it? Does naming your pain help? Are you inclined to dwell on your sorrows or do you tend to move through them quickly? How is this experience different? Leave me a reply and let me know: What are the losses you are grieving as a result of COVID-19? 

May your burdens be lightened,

William

P.S. If this letter resonated with you, please share it with those you care about. Let us share each other’s loads.

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

Bucket List For The Brain: What Do You Want To Learn Before You Die?

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” –Mahatma Gandhi

“Self-education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is.” –Isaac Asimov

Hello friend,

One day in my twenties, I was suddenly struck by the idea that I simply must learn more about Western Europe, and that I must see it firsthand to do so. The idea would not go away. It had to be done. So, I stuffed my backpack, hopped on a plane bound for Amsterdam, and wandered around for a few months. The Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Greece, France, Spain, Luxembourg, Belgium. It was a genuine mind-opener and heart-opener for me. Along the way, mostly to be a courteous guest but also out of pure curiosity, I learned the most elementary phrases in each of the languages: Good morning! Do you speak English? Good-bye! How much does it cost? Excuse me, but where is the toilet? What time does the train to Paris leave the station? Thank you very much! That kind of stuff.

I had Spanish in high school and was already okay with that, but the rest I had to start from scratch. I liked it, though, both the challenge and what it opened up in the interactions with the locals. Most of them spoke English–what a relief–but they appreciated my effort. It made me appreciate their effort to learn my language so well, and it made me envious of their knowledge. How lucky to have a mind with such useful information, like a key to a room with more Happiness inside.

Still, in my first few countries, the sounds of the Dutch, German, Austrian, and Swiss people on their own did not sing to my ears and draw me in like a siren’s song (the German language is pretty unpleasant for me, actually).

However, a magical thing happened to me on the morning that I descended the Swiss Alps into Northern Italy, bound for Verona. I happened to be sharing a train compartment with a young girl and her mother, as well as an old woman riding alone. We emerged from the majestic Alps into this lovely, rolling land and pulled into the station of the first town on the Italian side of the border. The mother, young girl, and I stayed in our seats, clearly pressing on to destinations further down the line. But slowly, the old woman rose from her seat and gathered her belongings. Then, just before she turned to go, she looked into the eyes of the little girl and said with such flavor, “Ciao, bella!” I swooned. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard. And right there in those two words, I fell madly in love with the Italian language.

I walked around with a smile on my face for two weeks, repeating the phrases and the dynamic inflections–even the accompanying gestures–that I heard from the people on the street. I loved all the words, even when I didn’t know what they meant.

When I left that enchanted land, I was determined to do two things: 1) return to Italy as soon as possible; and 2) learn that beautiful language. I am pleased to report that I nailed the first one and loved it more each time I went back. I cannot, however, claim any success on the second.

I never learned Italian. But I still want to. It has become a life goal to speak it passably, much as it has been my aim to bring my level of Spanish from high school quality up to fluency. Trust me when I tell you: I have a loooooong way to go! There is so much to learn! I would like to achieve both of these before I die, however. They are just the start of a sort of “bucket list” for my brain.

I have decided that everyone should have one of these lists, separate from the regular bucket list that we are accustomed to talking about, the one with all of the cool things we will do before we die. For one, I find it so important to have plans and goals and things to dream about. These things give us Hope and Purpose. They put spring in our steps. However, whether hampered by age, fear, income, disability, or something else, we are not all going to be able to skydive, run a marathon, visit Machu Picchu, or swim with the dolphins. But we can all have adventures of the mind. And we should!

Learning gives us life in so many ways. It breeds empathy. It sparks our imagination. It helps us to better understand ourselves and how we connect with the world around us. It gives us Wisdom. It inspires us. It does all of that and more for me, so I am planning to stuff my brain full of new skills, ideas, and stories until my last breath goes out of me. These are some of the things–other than becoming trilingual–on the top of my endless list:

Quantum Physics. I may be attempting to swim in a pool that is much too deep for my capacity, but I have always been fascinated by the tidbits about this science that I have picked up in other books. Mostly I love the idea of confirming in a more technical and specific way the idea that I have always felt in my bones to be true: that we truly are all connected, all One. I have no illusions about how difficult the brain work required will be, but I am game for the challenge if it means I get to better understand human existence.

Photography. I have been taking photographs for many years, and my favorites are continually updated on the walls all over my home. But as much as I enjoy, and even admire, some of the images I have captured, I have always been aware of how much my best shots are due to luck instead of true skill with the camera. I may have an eye for light, but I lack the true knowledge to use all of the camera’s variables–aperture, shutter speed, etc.–to create the level of art that I am striving for. I will not be satisfied until I gain competence in the finer points, whether that is through a class or just lots of reading and experimentation. I want to feel like a “real” photographer. I plan to get there.

Photoshop. This one goes with the last one, but it is also its own animal. As much as I enjoy taking the actual images, I am fascinated by those with the ability to play around with the images and create separate works of art out of the original art. It is technical but still artistic. That combination appeals to me. I can tell by how tickled I feel inside when I think about it that it is a tool that I must learn the intricacies of.

Nutrition. I don’t know how deep I really want to go with this, but I want to know more than I do. It just feels like there is a book or person out there for every possible nutrition idea–many of them competing ideas–and I just want to know the real deal about what I am putting into my body and how it is affecting me. More specifically, I want to know if there is a way I can be leaner and lighter without getting extreme in my discipline. There has to be a teacher out there for that, right? I must find her!

Green Initiatives. I am passionate about the issue of climate change and the effects of human activity–especially our extreme dependence upon fossil fuels–on our world, but I don’t feel well-enough informed on all of the science or all of the options for us to move forward. Mostly I want to be better able to have the conversation with regular folks who don’t have the issue on their radar. I would like to be a better example to my kids, too, both by sharing the knowledge and by modeling a greener lifestyle. Before I can do better, I have to know better. I am determined to know.

Astronomy. Because everything out there is totally awesome.

Instant Pot Cooking. I cook for my family almost every night of the year, and yet my repertoire is limited. I only tried a simple crock pot thing that my sister schooled me on in the last year, and I can see the potential. But this Instant Pot sounds like a ticket to a whole new level. I even got one for my wife last year because she agreed that it sounds amazing, but it is not doing me any good in the cupboard. I know the task is as simple as me digging out the instruction manual, then going to the store and start experimenting. I am a bit intimidated, I must admit. But I want to be a better, more creative cook. I just have to learn.

Podcasting & Audiobook Creation. When I wrote my book, I was so into each step of the process of publishing. It was incredibly tedious, but also so engaging and fulfilling to learn all of the skills. I made the bound book; I made the e-book. The one I never got to was the audiobook. I wish I had. And it’s not too late to learn. With as many people that have podcasts these days, I figure that has to be even easier. It would be fun to put these letters out to you in podcast form, too, to speak the words that I write. This sounds even more fun to learn than many of the others on this list. Bonus!

Guitar & Piano. I know this is not exactly “book learning” in the way some of the others are, but it is certainly an enrichment exercise for the mind (and the soul). I own both of these instruments, so I just need to seek out the instruction. I can start with books or YouTube, but I envision myself someday actually taking lessons from a live teacher. It is very important to me to keep Art in my life, and I definitely need help with this one.

That use of an instructor is a wrinkle for me. I can see from my list that while I could certainly be helped by taking real classes in these subjects (hello, Quantum Physics!), they are mostly things I can learn on my own if I just supply the time and the discipline. I can usually summon the discipline, but I struggle with the time. I placate myself by saying that surely that time will appear when my kids grow up, and that then I will treat myself to a first-class education in everything that I feel called to. Will there be enough time to get to it all before I die? Probably not, because learning one thing tends to multiply the spark to learn more. But I promise myself that I will try. No matter how little time I seem to have now, I will chip away at these big learning goals, dabbling in those I have already listed and probably many more.

I love the power in knowing that I can do this without anyone else’s time or permission. It’s on me. Because even though I have let myself down before regarding my ambitions, I much prefer the option to bet on myself. I don’t know how many days remain in my lifetime, but I can guarantee that they will be spent expanding my mind. I will be learning new skills and sharpening old ones, trying out new ideas and testing my wits, opening my soul to allow for new ways to create and express myself through the arts, listening to people’s stories, and sometimes just plain reading. There are so many things I have to know before I go!

How about you? What are you determined to learn before you die? Open your journal and your brain and consider what it is craving? First, how much of a learner are you? Are you like me and feel compelled to understand just about everything in your world, or are you not very curious? How has your level of curiosity and desire to learn new topics changed as you have aged? Has it been fairly constant? Does it change with the amount of free time you seem to have? Is there a topic that you wish you had studied in school? Which types of learning are you more drawn to at this age? Practical skills, like cooking or car maintenance? Does technology interest you? Artistic things, like painting or photography? Would you like to learn a musical instrument (or two)? How about pure knowledge for its own sake, like the sciences or history? Do you like to keep abreast of the important issues of the day, like climate change or health care alternatives? Are you into self-help practices? Would you rather learn other people’s stories in order to be more empathetic? How do you currently study up on the things you want to learn? Books? Classes, like Community Education or a local college? YouTube? Will you actually do the work on your own, or do you need a teacher to keep you on-task and accountable for your learning? Have you shown so far that you are willing to invest in yourself? Looking to the future, what are the things you still most want to learn? How do you prioritize them? Which are absolutely essential? Are there some that will have to wait longer to begin? Which of them would you most regret not learning if you were to die tomorrow? Will you ever be content with how much you know? Leave me a reply and let me know: What is on your Brain Bucket List?

Go & Grow,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you today, please share it with your community. The more you know….

P.P.S. If this type of deep examination of your life appeals to you, consider buying a copy of my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers. Namaste.

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.

STIRRED UP: How Long Since You Felt Your Soul Tingling?

“It’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting.” –Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

“The possible’s slow fuse is lit by the Imagination.” –Emily Dickinson

Hello friend,

I am feeling the tingle! Lately, I have discovered fairies dancing in my chest. My imagination has been soaring. And, perhaps most telling of all, I have been walking around with a twinkle in my eye. My soul is on fire!

All of this can only mean one thing: something new and completely intriguing has landed in my mind. More precisely, it was dropped there like a bomb from the outside. And now it is in there, wreaking havoc on my usual thoughts and priorities. It is, simply put, a distraction. Oh, but what a delicious distraction it is!

It all started a few weeks ago, when, completely out of nowhere, I got a message from an old friend who I rarely hear from. “I was thinking we could collaborate on a little poetry book with you writing and me doing some illustration.” Here would be the appropriate place, if you and I were texting right now, for me to insert the “mind blown” emoji. The idea just totally knocked my socks off, both for its randomness and its supernatural powers of inspiration.

I cannot explain it–though, of course, I will try, because I can’t help myself–but somehow it just reached down into the deepest recesses of my soul and grabbed something that I didn’t realize (or remember?) was there. I have always held in my mind such a romantic image of poets, much the same way I do of songwriters, painters, yogis, and surfers. I suppose it has something to do with tapping into the greater powers of the Universe in ways that the rest of us commoners never do. I have wished, at various points in my life–and perhaps secretly for all of my life–to be one of those people. I long to be more creatively gifted, deeper spiritually, and physically (and geographically) able to paddle out into the ocean to synchronize with the waves and be truly free. Those thoughts send my mind and soul spinning toward Bliss.

Though I write these letters to you and take the crafting of them seriously, I tend to think of my gifts as more of the crafting variety and less of the truly artistic. These words are, I am sure you will agree, not exactly the elegant, dripping-with-beauty prose of a master. I don’t flatter myself that the great American novel is in me just waiting for me to release it any more than I have faith that I will one day paint like Renoir or play the guitar like Jimi Hendrix. But I love to write and am grateful for whatever meager gift I have any claim to. And hey, a guy has fantasies! You think I never dreamed myself penning a rhyme as beautiful as John Keats or William Butler Yeats? Of course I have.

In one of my acting classes so many years ago, the teacher had us all dialed into the poetry of the Romantic Era. Keats, Byron, Shelly, etc.. Challenging as it was for my early-20s brain to absorb their seemingly foreign language, I became quite taken by it. I imagined what it would be like to have that kind of magical gift, who might be my muse, and the writing process of a genius. Because of my lack of true belief, I have never actually put my butt in the chair and attempted it, but don’t mistake that for an absence of fantasies. I have longed to be a poet, just long ago and only in my dreams.

So, when I read that note from my old friend a few weeks ago, it was like the lid was pried off an old, dusty jar that had long been lost (hidden?) in the dark depths of the cellar. It was as though she had uncovered a secret I had never told anyone. My mind was stumbling in disbelief, both that she would ever have considered offering the idea of a poetry book to me, the non-poet, and that she had somehow unmasked that long-buried aspect of my soul’s many and meandering longings. I felt suddenly naked and vulnerable, exposed in a way I hadn’t imagined I could be. How could she know? And even if she had that intuition, the audacity to propose such a daunting challenge was something that all but knocked me over.

My mind was all over the place as I read and re-read her note. “Is she insane? I am no poet! That would be so much fun to collaborate….except that it’s probably been 30 years since I wrote some silly Haiku in high school. What would ever have put this random idea in her head? There’s no way I could do this! I am sure she knows some actual poets; why me? I wish I could pull it off. I need to tell her she is crazy so she can find a true artist to match her illustrative talents. And yet….”

And yet. Those two words would not let the idea drift away quietly, even as my brain suggested it should.

There are these moments in life when the soul will simply not cooperate with the logical, practical brain. We are inexplicably drawn to an idea, a person, or a place. No matter how we explain it away, our intuition/gut/heart/sixth sense/soul/daemon will not let it go.

When I was about 20, my straight-A, medical school-bound brain advised/warned me to stay on the same straight path I had been on since I started kindergarten, but my soul felt a sudden, unstoppable pull in a seemingly opposite direction. A few years later, a similar drive appeared out of nowhere, demanding that I explore Europe, despite never before having any interest in it. In the years that have followed, I have been pulled out of comfortable workplaces and a comfortable career into uncharted waters that somehow begged to be delved into. Just before I wrote you my first Journal of You letter almost six years ago–with no precursor for it in my background and no reasonable amount of available time or energy to pull it off amidst a busy life of work and two little kids–my soul surged to the point of mania to disgorge it from my system and get it onto your screen. It felt like I was on fire inside as I composed it, despite the fact that there was no obvious or logical germination point for the concept. Why???

Only the soul knows.

In the movie Despicable Me 2, one of my favorite lines is when Gru declares, “Evidence shmevidence–I go with my gut!” The most exhilarating moments of my life have been those immediately after I ignored the logical arguments against the thing I had just done, the thing that overtook my soul and simply felt right to me. The thing that made my heart sing and my eyes twinkle. The thing that blew my hair back and gave me the tingle. In those moments, the outcome was far from certain and probably more likely to fail, but I felt so completely true and aligned and pure. I had listened to those cues my soul gives me–the quickened pulse, the hyper-curiosity about the topic at hand, the deep sense of Peace when I imagine myself doing it, the tingles, the tingles, the tingles–and trusted. The end result didn’t seem to matter, even, because I was finally fully connected. Finally me.

Maybe these opportunities are always around us and only need an open-enough mind to sense them and a bold-enough imagination to give them a full whirl through your system to see what kind of feedback you get. But maybe, as I am guessing, these magical possibilities come through our lives like comets or fireflies, beautiful rarities that are so wildly rewarding only if we are fully present for their fleeting but devastating Wonder. If we are lucky, open, and brave enough to participate in their fanciful game, we just might get to ride a few of Life’s comets.

When I read my friend’s unlikely note a few weeks ago, amidst much head-shaking, I finally decided that this is one of my little windows into the Wonder of the Universe and the potential magic of Me. This is a chance to reach into the field of pure potentiality and see if I might become something different, something bigger than I had ever believed possible.

I still don’t know if I can write a poem, and I still would not bet that the proposed project will ever come to fruition. But I am willing to play along with those fairies in my chest. I selected an empty notepad and made it my Poetry Notebook, ready to be filled with ideas, attempts, and maybe even a completed verse of two. On the first page, I jotted down some potential topics. On the second, I wrote my first attempt at a free-verse poem (I have to get past the idea that rhyming is silly). It was awful, of course. But the process plainly tickled me. I grinned and giggled as I wrote. I could feel my soul nodding its approval. Not of the poem, but of me.

I don’t take that approval for granted. I have had plenty of days and nights of a restless soul, a sad soul, an empty soul. Approval feels so much better. So, I am going to keep trying to make music for those fairies to dance to, even if it comes in the form of bad poetry and ordinary letters to you. Life’s tingles are too good and too rare to miss. I don’t know what it will be next that stirs my soul, but I plan to be open to it when it passes my way.

How about you? When was the last time you felt your soul tingling at the prospect of a life change? Open up your journal and tap into your sixth sense. What kind of signals does your intuition/soul send into your body and mind when it is attracted to a new possibility? Butterflies in your stomach? Fixation on the idea? A light heart? Vivid imagery? The urge to dance or run or create? When was the last time an idea appeared on your doorstep–whether generated by you or offered up by someone else–that clearly stirred up your soul, not just your brain? What do you think it was about that particular idea that caused such a reaction? How much potential did the idea have to transform your life? What was your reaction? Did you pay close attention to the cues your soul was sending from the beginning, or did you hold them at bay until they became too strong to ignore? What was the strongest cue? Did you explore the new idea and give it a full whirl through your imagination? Did you take any real action to try it out (e.g. have a job interview, try a class, ask a person to coffee, write a poem, etc.)? Did you feel a sense of Peace that signaled your soul’s approval of your pursuit? How did it work out in the end? Did you change your lifestyle, or did you fail at your attempt and move back to your old routine? Was it a worthwhile failure? Is it always worthwhile to pursue these flights of the soul, no matter how they work out? Do the flights keep you alive? What form have your flights taken in your life? An artistic venture? A new career path? Travel? Study? Romance? Relocation? New foods or exercises? Spiritual seeking? Does your soul remind you in different ways depending on the type of thing it craves? Which is the signal you are most likely to follow? Leave me a reply and let me know: What makes your soul tingle?

Twinkle on,

William

P.S. If today’s topic resonated with you, please share it with your community. Let’s remind each other to chase the Light!

P.P.S. If this way of pursuing your Truth by excavating your story appeals to you, consider buying my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers.