Category Archives: Relationships

Grading Your Year: A Personal Report Card for 2017

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

So, how did I do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make each moment count,

William

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

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

The Happy Place: Where are your fondest memories?

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything. I remembered it all.

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

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

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

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

Light up the place where you are,

William

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

Can We Talk? Opening Your Mind To Broaden Your Horizons

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

Hello friend,

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

Never, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

America. 2017.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blossom and grow,

William

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

Do You Let Yourself Be Happy?

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And they haven’t. In twenty years.

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

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

Let go,

William

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

The Belated Summer Reading List

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Live a thousand lives,

William

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

The Best Day Of Summer

“This is a wonderful day, I have never seen this one before.” –Maya Angelou

Hello friend,

This week’s Back-To-School photos on Facebook marked the first sign of the end of my favorite season. Though I am always tickled to see all of those smiling faces looking so much older than the same photos last year, mostly I hate the accompanying thought that my precious days of Summer Bliss are almost gone.

But, since my kids don’t start until after Labor Day, I try to remain in denial. There are still a handful of “Summer things” I hope to do with them, and in my mind, there is still time to make it happen. Honestly, though, I can feel the tick-ticking of the Summer clock winding down and, with it, a rise in my panic level.

It is tough to keep the anxious thoughts at bay: Were we at the lake enough? Did we do enough new stuff? Did we see enough family? Have we had enough adventures? Did we get enough exercise? Have we done enough quintessentially Summer things, like swaying in the hammock or roasting marshmallows? Have we connected enough with Mother Nature? Have we connected enough with each other?  

But the question that intrudes most into my consciousness as my season closes is this: Did I often enough feel that combination of true Bliss and Gratitude that comes in those magical moments that cause me to note, with a smile plastered across my face, “THIS is what it’s all about!”?  

Luckily, just as the panic of that question was about to set in, I happened to stumble upon a WHOLE DAY like that last weekend, just in time to improve my grades on Summer’s report card. It is amazing how one day can transform a world!

We had driven to my sister’s family cabin late Thursday, arriving amidst a cold, howling wind in the black of a backwoods night. Hoping for a hot Summer weekend at the lake, prospects were not looking good when Friday remained dark and windy. I used the day to get my bearings, catch up with my sister, and find the most comfortable spots to read and write. It was good company and a treat to be by the water, but I longed to engage with it they way I can only do in warmth and sunshine. I was wanting.

Ah, but then Saturday came around, and I wanted no more.

I opened the bedroom door in the morning and was greeted by the most wonderful light. My sister’s cabin has wall-to-wall windows on the lake side, and that light was an almost overwhelming beauty each morning. Like stepping into a healing bath of Divine Grace. I was instantly happy and full of a Peace that would linger all the day through.

After an amazing breakfast of homemade waffles with vanilla pudding and raspberries on top—trust me, this little family recipe of my brother-in-law’s is a delight—I convinced my wife to go out on the double kayak with me. Not much of an outdoor adventurer or risk-taker by nature, my wife’s acceptance of such an invitation was a treat all by itself. And when we got out on the calm lake with nothing but blue sky above us and the pine trees towering over the little cabins on all horizons, I was blissfully in my element. They only allow motorized wakes on their lake between eleven and three, so the quiet of the morning only amplified the beauty and serenity of the scene. As we paddled around the perimeter of the little lake, I noticed my grin and the sense of abundance and contentment welling up inside me. I was already oozing gratitude.

By the time we returned from our kayak ride, the sun was just warm enough to call for a swim, and my son was waiting for me on the shore so we could go together. He did flips and tricks off my shoulders, alternating turns with his cousins jumping off me into the refreshing water. Soon it was eleven o’clock, and the kids were ready to tube. I watched and took pictures from the boat as they giggled their way around the lake at top speed. I remembered the bonds I made at their age playing with my own cousins at a different lake, and how fondly I still remember those days and those special people. I was so pleased to be passing on that priceless gift to my kids.

After lunch on the balcony overlooking the lake, I got to get back in the water to help my daughter learn how to waterski, which again brought back so many memories of my youth. Some technical difficulties caused us to abandon the job, but since I was already wet, I joined the kids on their next tube ride around the lake. Though I am probably “too old” for that sort of thing, the exhilaration of the speed—and the crash–was an unadulterated joy for my still-young heart.

Following tubing and the noise of all of the ski boats, I was relieved at the quiet of mid-afternoon. I grabbed a floaty from the boathouse and floated lazily as I watched the kids play Whiffle-ball on the beach. Then I hopped on a single kayak and paddled out to watch a little sailboat race in the middle of the lake. On such a small lake, with all of the boats parked in the middle watching the sails gliding smoothly across the water, it felt like a regular small-town gathering. So intimate and quaint. I felt completely at ease. No threats, no worries. Just peace.

Riding the serenity of my solo kayak voyage, I came ashore to find the kids eager to get back in the water. With quiet hours in full swing on the lake, they opted for “slow tubing,” a delightful little cruise around the lake, with the pontoon dragging the tube and a knee board on separate ropes. The kids dove off the tube and board at their whim and hung onto the rope as we chugged along at a snail’s pace. They were having an absolute blast as we chatted on the boat, and soon I was feeling like they were getting the better of the deal. Off came my shirt and sunglasses, and I dove in to join in the kid fun as the boat trolled on. It was fantastic—exhilarating and soothing all at once.

As we pulled into the dock, my kids asked me if I would take them out on the double kayak. Nothing would please me more, I was thinking. Off we went, and soon their cousins joined us in the middle on two kid kayaks. It was that time of day when the sun is sinking and everything is colored in the most beautiful light. There was water, the beauty of Mother Nature, and the magic of children. That is my kind of paradise!

We returned to the cabin for a sunset dinner on the veranda before strolling down to the fire pit by the beach to roast marshmallows and make s’mores. Those marshmallows had been waiting too long on my Summer To-Do List, and they were heavenly!

That was all warm-up, though, for the grand finale: star-gazing! This may seem like nothing to you, but I can’t tell you how long it has been since I sat out under a clear sky at night away from the lights of a city. Years! I was absolutely mesmerized by the clarity and endlessness of it. Even better was seeing my kids get a big thrill at seeing the Big Dipper and North Star. We were thoroughly amazed by the magnificence of it all.

Though it was definitely bedtime for my body, my mind was on fire with wonder and gratitude. I hated to look away from the night sky. But as I said goodnight to the kids and lay my head down on my pillow, the visions left over in my mind from all I had basked in that day were enough to carry me smiling into dreamland.

From the moment I rose in the morning to the moment I drifted off to sleep, that day was one for the ages. There was no one thing that made it so. It definitely wasn’t some blockbuster event or moment. No, it was a million little things. It was all these perfect, can’t-stop-grinning moments in succession set in my kind of place with my kind of people. It was the small size of the lake, its restricted speed boat hours, and the resulting intimacy that made everything feel so quaint and low-key. It was the middle-of-nowhere sense of where we were, and the feeling of endless beautiful forest around us. Reinforcing that feeling was the fact that we had no cellular or Wifi service, so we were totally disconnected from the chaos and foolishness that defines America lately. It was certainly the water, which always woos me. It was the company: my wife and kids and my sister’s family, all who are very dear to me and don’t do much to push my many buttons. It was also clearly the atmosphere that my sister sets at her place, too: no set schedule or expectations for joining activities, easy meals, no obsession with neatness, just be kind and enjoy yourself. It was seeing the world of my wife and kids expand: new place, new activities, a new adventure. I always love being a part of that. It was nostalgia. And finally, it was that priceless and indescribable sense of enchantment I experience amidst certain settings or activities: the glassy water, the night sky, campfire, eating a roasted marshmallow right off the stick. These are things that fill me with the kind of tingles that I can only translate as a big thumbs-up from my soul, letting me know it is being taken care of.

Saturday felt like an entire day of those tingles. I think of it now, and this grin that cannot be wiped from my face tells me that it was surely my best day of the Summer.

How about you? What was your best day of the Summer? Open up your journal and your mind and walk yourself through those special moments. Which day was it? Does the exact date come immediately to mind? What was it about that day that makes it stand out from all the rest? Was it anchored by a big event (e.g. a concert, family reunion, vacation, or party) that defined the day, or was it quite unspectacular on the surface? Which people were involved in your best day? Are those people regulars in your list of favorite days from other seasons and years? Was it the people that made it the best day? Had you looked forward to that specific day for a long time, or did it sneak up on you like mine did? How early in the day did you know that you were a part of something special? How big of a role did the setting play? Was it a regular spot for you (e.g. your home) or somewhere new? Did food play a role? How about activity? Was it more about what you were doing or how you were feeling or being? How do you think the day rated for the other people who were involved in it? Was it fantastic for everyone, or maybe just an ordinary day for some? Did you talk about how contented or joyous you were at the time, or did you keep it to yourself? Could you create that same type of experience again, or was this a one-shot deal for which everything just fell into place perfectly? What is it about that day that you could put more of into your normal days? Does your best day make you smile just thinking about it? I hope so. Leave me a reply and let me know: What was your best day of the Summer?

Savor your moments,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please pass it on. Let’s celebrate our lives!

The Treason of Silence

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” –Martin Luther King Jr.

Hello friend,

I ask you today to open your mind to a thought that ought to be very uncomfortable for you.

But first, I want you to conjure up a specific image in your mind—you can choose from the many that have made their way through the various media in the last week—of one or two of the torch-bearing, Confederate-flag-and-swastika-waving bigots who marched on Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend.

Mine is the face of Peter Cvjetanovic, clad in his white polo and styled hair, holding his Tiki Torch and screaming next to the other young, white, male torch-bearers (you know, the one who, when outed this week, said, essentially, “I’m not the racist everyone is making me out to be.” Poor guy.)

But you choose your own. There are many photos and videos to choose from, and the cast of characters is huge. But the images seem to reveal some commonalities. They are violent. They are angry. They are organized. And they are ready to break your country into pieces.

Now here is the thought I want you to entertain: Maybe you are a bigger problem for us than they are.

I know, I know, it sounds farfetched. And trust me, I am as hypersensitive as they come and cannot stand to be accused of anything. So I feel you. But bear with me.

You might be worse for your country right now—and for human rights, social progress, Justice, etc.—than those neo-Nazis and white supremacists who stormed Charlottesville last weekend.  

How could that even be possible?

When you are actually in a moment of history, you rarely understand its significance. In the first few years of The Civil Rights Movement, there was nothing called “The Civil Rights Movement.” It was just people like Rosa Parks acting for justice. Only later did we recognize the Montgomery Bus Boycott as a seminal moment in The Civil Rights Movement.

It seems to me that we are in quite a moment right now. I can’t say for sure how this will all look fifty or a hundred years from now and what the history books will say, but I have a suspicion that this era will be in there and that we will be judged for our roles in it.

What urges me to ask this difficult question of you is none other than Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself. Dr. King is on my short list of greatest heroes. He wrote and spoke so many words that have touched me in my deepest places. But the ones that seem to come back over and over to haunt and inspire me are his passages about silence and the role of “good people” in the culture of injustice that has defined America since its inception.

“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” 

“It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, ‘Wait on time.’” 

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” 

“To ignore evil is to become accomplice to it.” 

“There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” 

When silence is betrayal. The common definition of treason is “betrayal of one’s country.” But what about a betrayal of humankind in general? A betrayal of Goodness? Of Justice?

You see, when you are crusading for Justice, your biggest enemy is not the unjust but the indifferent.

Let me unpack that. If I am a leader tasked with combatting racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, anti-Muslim sentiment, you name it, the ones who do the most damage to my cause are not those guys in Charlottesville marching with their flags and beating people up. Those guys are the low-hanging fruit; they are easy to address and easy to rally against. They are deplorable and I wish they were gone, yes, but their kind of damage can be measured and contained. They are a broken bone—badly broken–not a cancer. No, the group that has the potential to quietly, casually allow disease to spread through my people are the silent, “good people” who say nothing when the bone-crusher rises up at our doorstep.

These “good people” can’t ever be singled out for using the “N-word” or openly discriminating against the Muslim family down the street. They may or may not have voted for the candidates who support tolerance and inclusivity, but they didn’t rally against them. They are always outwardly kind and respectful. So, what makes them the great “tragedy,” as Dr. King referred to them?

Their “appalling silence” when it comes to defining moments and matters of importance.

By the end of last weekend, you might have known that the events in Charlottesville were a big deal by the amount of media coverage they were getting, but I surely couldn’t tell by the number of my social media community who were speaking out against these people and their disgusting causes. Nearly everyone seemed to be just viewing it from a distance, as though it were a new television series and not a moral crisis point for our entire nation. By the end of the weekend, I was more disturbed by that “appalling silence” of the “good people” that are my social community than by the neo-Nazis and white supremacists.

I suddenly became very active on Facebook. I am typically the guy who looks at Facebook a lot but doesn’t post things on my personal page very often. Well, I started sharing and posting about Charlottesville and implored my community to speak up to their communities about it, stressing that silence communicates support for the white supremacists. I made a point of praising anyone who used their voice in any way—a personal post, a share, etc.—to address the issue. But the more I scoured my Timeline for people’s reflections, the more the silence became deafening to me. (I recognize that several days after the event, it started to become more fashionable to change profile pictures to “I stand against racism” and such, and I don’t wish to diminish those small steps. But my point remains.)

This is not a controversial topic. This is not something that a Democrat friend should think one way on and therefore a Republican friend should think the opposite way. Right? I mean, I know that since the election, almost everyone in my feed has become gun-shy about saying anything “political” in their posts for fear of stirring up another hateful argument and grating on all the raw nerves that the very long campaign process exposed. But, despite what some leaders might say about “many sides,” I think we can all agree that there is one side of this deal that is despicable. Saying so should not risk sparking a debate.

So, why the silence?

Honestly, is it not a big enough topic to raise your blood pressure? Does it just not move the needle for you? WHAT COULD BE BIGGER??? Are Liberty, Equality, and Justice not quite enough to get you to clear your throat and throw out a few words? Just a few.

If not now, when?

Seriously, if you haven’t gotten up in your social media community, family and friend community, spiritual community, or any other community this week and said that you disagree with the Charlottesville marchers and that you stand with the people they are trying to oppress, then I honestly don’t know what to do with you?

It scares me to have to wonder what is in your heart on this matter, especially when speaking out against hate would appear to come with no risk involved.

Your silence portrays, at best, indifference, and that indifference enables this type of nonsense to be normalized.   Are you really in favor of normalizing Hate?

The topic demands that you stand up and take a position. Neutrality is not an option on something so big and so potentially damaging.

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

I wasn’t even going to write this week because I have been preparing for and on vacation. The thing that drove me to carve out the time was the very title itself: The Treason of Silence. I just know in my bones that this moment in time is our moment of reckoning—individually and collectively as a country—and that History will judge us accordingly. As much as “the appalling silence and indifference of the good people” truly does appall me, I know that my own silence on this matter might be my biggest regret. I choose to speak.

How about you? How have you chosen to react to the dramatic events in Charlottesville in recent days? Open up your journal and justify your level of action or inaction, your reasons for speaking up or being silent. Perhaps it is best to begin with how the events—the marches, the swastikas, the violence, the death—made you feel on the inside. What was your visceral reaction? Stunned? Appalled? Overjoyed? Disturbed? Relieved? Angered? Saddened? Indifferent? How would you describe both the feeling and the depth of it? How much did the images move your needle? If you said you were clearly affected by them—and especially if you felt that what was happening was terribly wrong–what did you do about it? Did you talk to anyone? Share on social media about it? Anything? If you did share, how long did it take you? What made you wait? Is this kind of open bigotry and hate becoming normalized? Is it now so normal that you didn’t—or almost didn’t—think to even say anything? Did you have anything to lose by speaking up—any social backlash, such as loss of friends or potentially angry debates with family members? If you had nothing to lose and still didn’t speak up, what do you think that says about your values and your character? Is the answer to that question a bitter pill to swallow? So, how about Dr. King’s sentiments? When evil is done and you are silent about it, are you an accomplice in that evil? Who is the bigger problem for our society today and the bigger barrier to eliminating the scourge of bigotry and hate: the thousands of people carrying the Confederate flags, shouting racial slurs, and beating people, or the millions of people who enable those thousands with their silence and indifference? Are you one of the thousands, one of the millions, or one of the ones who spoke up? Are you satisfied with your response? Did it match the level of the offense? If not, what will it take to get you to deliver a response worthy of the situation in the future? If this isn’t a disturbing enough event for you, what would be? Leave me a reply and let me know: Are you one of the “good people” who have remained appallingly silent?

Rise to the occasion,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it. We all need to do some soul-searching on this one.

The Dream Summer Road Trip

Hello friend,

“To travel is to live.” –Hans Christian Andersen

My sister sent me a photo this week, and my mind was instantly transported back in time.

It was the Summer of 1993. I was 21 years old, and my best buddy Johnny and I were embarking on a grand adventure. He had a blue Chevy Blazer—“The B”—and we packed that thing to the gills! We pictured ourselves as these rugged outdoorsmen, ready to sleep with the animals, catch our meals, and tear up all the trails of the great Rocky Mountains. The truth is that we were complete amateurs at everything and thus basically packed every item we owned into that car–you know, just in case—so that there wasn’t an inch of space left anywhere, including on my feet and lap. Camping gear, fishing gear, groceries, cooler, big garbage bags full of clothes, and a sweet, old-school camera that belonged to John’s old man (we thought we would become a couple of modern-day Ansel Adamses). Oh yeah, and our bikes on the back. You might have thought we were leaving for a year. We figured a few weeks.

As any two fools would, we set off on our eleven-hour first leg of the trip around ten o’clock at night. It was a narrow, two-lane highway across the pitch-black night of the empty prairie, lined with occasional white crosses where people had gone off the road and died, which served as not-so-subtle reminders to stay awake. There was no one out there but us, but our souls were on fire with visions of the mountains as we made our way through the night powered by Mountain Dew and Chicago’s “Greatest Hits 1982-1989” album. A couple of flatlanders headed for the high country.

In life, there are a small handful of exquisite moments when you are on the cusp of something truly game-changing. Something deep inside you is doing cartwheels because it knows that what you are about to experience is so special that you will never look at the world the same way again. Driving West across the black emptiness that night, I knew I was in the midst of one of those moments.

Those next few weeks were pure Bliss for me. I felt so much like a kid in a candy store every second of the day. Glacier National Park was our first and most-dreamed-about destination. Though I had skied every year in Montana when I was a kid, Glacier was like nothing I had ever seen before. The sheer majesty of the place was absolutely heart-stopping. I felt drunk as I climbed the steep trails, jumped across boulders in the middle of the rushing streams, and dipped my feet into the icy-cold, crystalline waters of the mountain lakes. I had found my Paradise.

It pained my heart to leave Glacier after those dream-like days of exploring, but I was buoyed by thoughts of all the unexplored miles ahead of us. We were just getting started! In the days that followed, we made our way through Western Montana and down to the shores of the Madison River, where my brother happened to be living in a tent for the Summer. He schooled us in the beauty of fly-fishing for a few days and led us up a crazy trail on our mountain bikes. After that, we headed South through the jagged Tetons and on down to the Great Salt Lake in Utah, where my other brother lived (not in a tent). Then it was time to turn back North and start for home.

On our last night on the road, again in the dark of night, we pulled into a remote Forest Service campground on one end of the Beartooth Highway outside of Yellowstone. The rain was pouring too hard to even attempt to get out and set up the tent, so we laughed at our luck and stayed right there in our seats for the rest of the night, because, as I mentioned, there was not even a hint of open space in the car, not even to recline our seats. It was a short, uncomfortable night, and we pulled out of our spot at first light to climb the Beartooth Pass, one of the most beautiful drives anywhere in the wide world. At the other end of the pass, all that was left was the last nine or ten hours to home.

It was truly one of those epic, journey-of-a-lifetime kind of deals: adventure, bonding with friends and family, and episodes both touching and silly, all set against a backdrop of Mother Nature’s most spectacular beauty. It was the best of times.

So, when my sister sent me a photo a couple days ago of her passing through Glacier National Park with her family, the memories came flooding back. It reminded me of all of the great Summer roadtrips I used to take out there. After that first trip 24 years ago, so enchanted was I that I made a point of getting to Glacier every Summer for several years in a row. It always left me completely spellbound.

Then my life changed. I moved further away and took on more commitments. I hate to admit how many years it been since I have been to my Glacier, or even to any of the mountains of the glorious Western range. So many years.

What my sister’s photo produced, in addition to the glow from thoughts of those halcyon days, was a fantasy of another epic trip to the mountains and open spaces of the American West. And the road.  

As much as I would love to do it again with my old buddy Johnny—and he would be up for it—and as much as I bask in a solo adventure, my life these days is about building wonderful memories for my kids and expanding their view of the world. So, this time anyway, this fantasy is a family road trip.

Here’s how I see it. We load up the car—though, maybe since it’s a fantasy, we say it’s a small RV–with camping gear and cool beverages and venture the two longest, least scenic days of the trip across our Minnesota, North Dakota (spending the night at my old house so it is just like leaving on my trip with Johnny), and Eastern Montana. We spend a day in Lewistown, Montana with my brother’s family. From there, we go straight for Glacier, where we spend a few days hiking in my Paradise and driving the Going To The Sun Road, stopping at all the scenic lookouts and taking in the bears, mountain goats, and big horn sheep. We may even give my wife a break from the tent and stay at the Lake McDonald Lodge.

Fully refreshed and invigorated from Glacier, we will head South through the Flathead Valley, through Missoula, and down through the Bitterroot National Forest into Idaho along the Salmon River. We will cut West across the Boise National Forest and into the middle of Oregon, turning South at Bend and through the forest to Crater Lake and beyond.

Leaving Oregon, we will come into all new territory for me (I have done the California coast, but never the Sierra Nevadas). We will travel inland through the many National Forests of Northern California before hitting the big National Parks: Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia, finally cutting across Death Valley and zipping past Las Vegas on our way to the Grand Canyon.

From the Grand Canyon, we will turn back North to check out the National Parks of Utah: Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches.

By that point, I will be in serious need of seeing big trees again, so we will drive a little faster North through Utah and back into Idaho, veering slightly Northeast toward Jackson, Wyoming and Grand Teton National Park. Grand Teton is connected to Yellowstone, the oldest National Park in the world. We will spend a couple of days in that geological playground before getting on that same Beartooth Highway that Johnny and I took all those years ago. But instead of heading for North Dakota this time, we will turn back Southeast out of Montana, through Northeast Wyoming, and into the beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota, where we will check out Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse carved into the hillsides. And from there, it is a mere 600 miles straight back home.

Boom!

Now, I realize that would get to be a pretty long trip (I am guessing a solid four weeks). I only know a few people who vacation for that long, and I am not one of them anymore. I have a shorter, smaller/“realistic” fantasy, though. In this case, I would start the same way through Glacier, but instead of leaving for Idaho and the West Coast from the Bitterroot Valley, I would work back toward Yellowstone, then hit Mount Rushmore on the way home. That could easily be done in less than two weeks. We would see a ton of beautiful country and make memories that would last a lifetime. I am grinning from ear to ear just thinking about it!

How about you? What does your dream Summer road trip look like? Open up your journal, your road atlas, and your Google Maps and start plotting the route. What part of the country comes immediately to your mind? What gives that area such a spark for you? Is it a famous landmark? A happy personal memory? Somewhere you have always wondered about? Somewhere a friend recommended? Is your fantasy trip to one main spot or a multi-spot journey like mine? How long will your trip take? Could you imagine moving to a spot on your trip? Have you been on this trip before? If so, how long ago was it? Who would you take along, if anyone? Who has been your favorite road trip partner in the past? What makes a good road companion? Does the vision of a long road trip stir the same type of romantic notions in you that it does in me, or are you more like, “Just fly me to my destination as quickly as possible.”? What would an adventure like this mean to you? Describe your most epic road adventure to date. How does your fantasy trip compare? How likely are you to take this dream drive? How soon can you make it happen? Leave me a reply and let me know: What is the itinerary for your dream Summer road trip?

Grow your world,

William

P.S. If today’s letter resonated with you, pass it on. Happy trails!

Other People’s Children (And Other Things I Can’t Stand)

“It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.” –Roald Dahl, Matilda 

Hello friend,

It is VERY easy for me to see why people who don’t have kids look at the other schmucks, like me, parenting and think how unappealing (maybe even awful) it seems.

You know what I mean? Say you don’t have kids, and you get together with these family folks occasionally. The only time you might notice the kids (unless you are really into kids) is when they are getting scolded or needing their diaper changed or spilling on your clothes or breaking your electronics or screaming or crying or swallowing your loose change and trinkets. And you think to yourself, “That looks like CONSTANT WORK! And NOT fun. And these poor suckers are stuck with these kids for like 20 YEARS!” And it all just seems so other-focused. Your “own time” falls away, and you can’t do whatever you want all the time.

I can see how this looks like a bad gig. The truth, however—and this is something you only learn by having them—is that the appearances were almost completely wrong.

Sure, parenting is totally exhausting and often frustrating, but it is also infinitely rewarding, soul-stirring, and heart-filling. And once you have your own kids, you are thinking, “This feels like CONSTANT LOVE! And SO fun. And I get them FOREVER!” 

It actually comes to be seen by the parent as a rather one-sided trade: “All I had to give up was some ‘freedom’ (which I wasn’t actually using very well) for a lifetime of love and connection, of family. That’s a steal!” 

At least that is sort of how it worked for me. Sort of.

I never wanted kids. Though I always liked hanging out with the kids rather than the parents at family gatherings and other social events, I never imagined having any of my own. I think it was because I never imagined myself “settling down” and getting married. If I wasn’t ever getting married, I surely was not ever having kids.

I never really had the “Those poor suckers…” thoughts about parents, though. I guess I never realized how challenging it is, so I never felt bad for them. The parents I knew seemed happy to be doing it, but like I said, I knew it wasn’t going to be for me. The path I imagined for myself was much, much different.

Of course, you know how that turned out! It’s amazing what meeting an amazing woman can do to shake up a world and a plan. Once I finally surrendered to the idea of becoming a husband, it was a given that I was also going to be a father. It was a bargain I understood going in, and once I agreed, I was all-in. I knew my limit for kids was two, and that was not negotiable. But I was going to give those two kids every bit of my love, my time, and my patience.

And I have. It has been rewarding beyond anything I could have imagined and beyond anything I have the words to describe to you.

I know it sounds so condescending to people without kids—and I apologize for that–but I really think it is one of those things you cannot understand unless you go though it. Unless you have waited for that child to come into your life. Unless you have rocked that sick baby to sleep and fed her on your chest. Unless you have encouraged those first steps and held onto that bicycle seat until you knew he was ready for you to let go. Unless you have shared your ice cream cone and held her hand on her first steps into the ocean. Unless you have been the only one who can make him feel better when he gets hurt on the playground or scared by a nightmare. Unless you have heard those joyful squeals and seen those eyes filled with sheer delight as they run to you upon hearing you come through the door.

Without the accumulation of these moments and a million more just like them, I think it is difficult to understand. But that doesn’t matter. My point is the same: in return for making the difficult decision to give up my single and childless life, I got this little window with these few people to make an unfathomably beautiful brand of magic. And though I admit to occasional wistful thoughts about the old days of blissful solitude, I would not trade this beautiful window for anything.

Including more of it.

Earlier this year, I came home one day and my wife asked me if I was willing to adopt an orphaned baby whom she had heard about that day. “Not in a million years!” was my automatic reply. It took no thought, and even when I did think about it, my sentiment was exactly the same. No chance.

Then last week, I got two babies dumped on my doorstep along with all of the paraphernalia to raise them for a few days. I had known it was coming for a while, and “dread” is not too strong of a word to describe my anticipation of the weekend. The kids belonged to my brother-in-law: one was seven months old, the other two-and-a-half years. An infant and a toddler. Oi!

I could not begin to imagine what was inside my wife’s head when she agreed to babysit for multiple nights for such creatures. Whatever it was—saintliness or insanity–I was buried in babies for the duration of their stay. It was exhausting! Even though my kids are only a handful of years past that stage, how quickly I had forgotten how absolutely NONSTOP it is with babies and toddlers. Constant vigilance. Constant play. Constant laundry. Messes everywhere. It is a crazy lifestyle.

And even though I grumbled in my head about being volunteered for this duty, I had vowed to myself that I would not take that out on the children. I would be present and joyful and engaged. I was, too. We all had a good time.

But. (There just had to be a “but”.) But I could only stomach it knowing that it was all going to end in a couple of days. I can’t imagine actually parenting like that, half the time thinking two major thoughts: “I am too old for this!” and “When are they leaving?”

I thought about my brother-in-law, who had two kids when he was in his twenties with his first wife, raised them to teenagehood and certainly figured he was done, then divorced, married a younger woman, and now has a second pair of babies in his mid-forties. Is he not constantly muttering, “I am too old for this stuff!”? He is not the only person I know who has had two distinct rounds of kids, either married to the same spouse or a different one. I have seen some who seem to resent the younger ones—or at least resent the grind of raising them–and are less engaged than they could be because, in their heads, they were done with their duties after the first round of kids. That’s not good for anyone involved.

I guess you have to decide on your limit and your window for having kids, then dive in head-first and enjoy the exhausting-but-wildly-rewarding ride, and then just chill until grandparenthood comes along. Have you noticed how people love grandparenthood? I am quite sure I will be ready by that time to go all-in on my grandkids, if I am so blessed.

But babysitting? Especially multi-day babysitting? At this point, I am just not there. I have no patience for their demands, quirks, and messes, even if they are just a different version of my kids’ issues. Play dates are the same, and now especially that my daughter has begun sleepovers. It is just not in me. Grrr.

Maybe it is because I had to initially grapple with the idea of having my own kids in the first place before finally embracing the plan fully, but it feels like by going completely all-in with them, I have somehow reduced my tolerance for the challenges of other people’s children. I have to smile through my grinding teeth during certain play dates when the other kid is acting up, and I would be quick to pass on any babysitting opportunity. At the same time, I am still completely patient and engaged with my own kids’ development, including when they are acting up.

It’s like my window for all of this stuff was only so big, and I have already squeezed every inch of my kid tolerance into it with my own pair of rugrats. As I wrote into my journal on the final afternoon of babysitting, “Two days is about 1 ½ days too many.”

I hope my brother-in-law is thrilled with his life choice. It is plainly not for me, though. I will gleefully pilot my two kids all the way to adulthood, but there is definitely no Round Two in my future. See you in grandparenthood, friend! That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

How about you? How tolerant are you of other people’s children? Open up your journal and take yourself through your recent experiences with kids. How would you categorize your patience level with them? How closely related to you were they? Is your tolerance level directly proportional to how closely related you are to the children (or at least how much you care for their parents)? If you have kids of your own, do you find yourself to be pretty accepting of their quirks and issues? How much different is it with other kids? Are you more or less tolerant with other kids? In your most private moments, do you wish you had fewer kids than you do? More? If you could give your younger self advice on how many children to have in order to achieve the right balance for your personality, what is that number? How much does that number differ from your significant other’s number? Who compromised the most? Do the effects of that compromise ever show themselves –e.g. lack of patience—in interactions with the kids? Do you like babysitting? How open would you be to my situation of taking on an infant and a toddler for a few days? Could a child’s story be told to you that would be compelling enough to adopt a child(ren) or become a foster parent? Are there other things in life that you sign on for, accept all of the frustrations and issues that come with it, but have no tolerance for beyond what you signed up for? Pets? Yard work? I used to deal with tons of financial figures at an old job to the point that I could not so much as open a bill at home. Similarly, I worked for years in service industries and had to not only tolerate but smile through just about every level of human nonsense imaginable, and I think I hit my quota and have lost my lifetime’s allocation of tolerance for pettiness, narrow-mindedness, and superficiality. How is your tolerance for those? I just had a revelation! I think this is the foundation of me as a grumpy old man. In recent years I have come to much greater understanding about what I love and what serves my soul and my greater good. Along with that comes clarity about what doesn’t. I have no time and patience for those things anymore, and I imagine my impatience for them will only grow as I age and refine my tastes. Thus, the grumpy old man. What do you think? Do you tolerate less and less as you age? Leave me a reply and let me know: What are the limits of your patience?

Smile at Life,

William

P.S. If something in today’s letter hits home with you, I hope you will share it. Peace to you.

Just the Essentials: What Do You Need to Be Content?

“The greatest wealth is to live content with little.” –Plato

Hello friend,

You know that feeling you get right before you leave for a trip? It’s a little rush of panic, with the urgent question, “Am I forgetting something?” Then, to calm yourself down, you run through a quick mental checklist of the most important items: keys, wallet, phone, etc.. And on and on checking off your list until the panic leaves you. Finally, you are free to head out the door and put your mind in vacation mode. Ahhh!!!

It is so obvious in those moments that if you forget one of these essentials, your trip won’t be anywhere near as enjoyable or as productive. And your memories won’t be the same.

This happened to me several years ago when I went to a family get-together at our lake cabin for the weekend and forgot my camera. I LOVED my camera! This was when my kids were really little—when “camera phones” were in their infancy and produced only blurs–and I was totally obsessed with photographing them with my fancy camera, especially capturing the once-in-a-lifetime moments with their little cousins and grandparents in a place that was very dear to me. After driving several hours to get there and unpacking the car, it was like a punch in the gut when I realized that my camera bag was still sitting in the hallway at home. I was devastated.

I kicked myself when I realized that I hadn’t had that panic moment before I left and thus never did the crucial checklist. So many times that weekend, I found myself wishing for my camera, hoping to capture a moment for posterity. I enjoyed myself, of course, but something was missing. There was an emptiness, a discontent. I was not operating with my vacation essentials taken care of, and I suffered the consequences with an anxious longing.

I was recently reminded of that unfulfilled weekend while talking to my niece, who is a professional photographer. I asked her about a recent family vacation to Africa—a photographer’s Paradise—and immediately sensed a sadness. She relayed that she had lugged her heavy photography bag all the way to Africa, only to find on arrival that the camera was not working and could not be fixed during her entire month on the continent. So, here was this photographic genius, whose eye naturally catches all of the amazing plays of light that yours and mine do not and then produces the images that blow us away, and she was left without this essential piece of what allows her to function happily in her world. For a month! That is rough.

With her story in mind, this week I have been pondering these “Essentials” in my ordinary life. I’m talking about the things I need to make me content on a daily basis.   “Things” in this case I am taking to mean things to do or to consume. Hobbies, foods, activities, places, habits. But NOT specific people! At least not for this list, as it makes it a little more complicated. Basically, I just want to nail down my daily physical requirements for contentment. And I want to do it without going too far into the weeds (because yes, I would go crazy without a toothbrush and deodorant, but I don’t think you want to know all of that). And in this case, let’s loosely define “contentment” as feeling comfortable in your skin, as though your needs are met and you are not arriving at the end of the day feeling the anxiety of leaving out something important.

So, what do I need to do in a day to not make myself crazy? I think it comes down to four things: journaling, exercise, ice cream, and fresh air. Let me explain.

I am not sure about including the ice cream, because I want to think that I can do without it (I am in an endless battle with my sugar demon). But I sure seem to find a way to include it into almost every one of my days. I also eat a banana and yogurt every morning without fail, but I don’t feel compelled by them. For most of my life, I also drank a large glass of chocolate milk at supper, but I have finally kicked that habit. It really is the cool, creamy goodness called ice cream that seems to be the one food that brings me back to myself when my body seems imbalanced after a meal. It soothes me. Every. Sweet. Day.

The fresh air is my thing, too, even though I neglect it too often in the colder months. When I am most in tune with my system, I can sense that I get irritable if it gets into the mid-afternoon and I have not been outside to breathe for a while. Like earlier this week, when it was wet and dark outside one morning, leaving me shut in to work in the basement. That was fine, but only for so long. Then I started looking for a reason to get out and imagining where I could find a dry spot to write. I get antsy. I long for the fresh air and the sounds of outside: the leaves rustling, the birds singing, the insects humming. I need to get out and take the deep breaths into my lungs, to close my eyes and feel quiet and whole and part of the scenery. To feel home.

Exercise is another given for me; I workout seven days a week. It is completely necessary for my mind. The body does the work, but it is the mind that reaps the benefits. Calm, satisfaction, relief, pride, exhilaration, confidence, engaged, cared for. I do it first thing in the morning because nothing in my system feels right until I have had a good sweat. And it’s not even that I am some super-fit guy who does intense workouts every day; no, I just do something. I would go mad if I was denied this ritual. Definitely essential.

And finally, I could not imagine living without my daily journal-writing. I have been at it for twenty straight years now, having only missed a small handful of days along the way. Without the journals, I would be so bottled-up, and yet so scattered. I would not know who I am nearly as well as I do, and I hate the thought of fumbling around blind in the world. Journaling gives me clarity, and that is something I am unwilling to do without. They are my solace and my most devoted companion.

When this topic of Essentials began to find shape in my mind, journaling was on the front of my brain before I could even formulate the question. The others became obvious when I pondered a bit, but the journaling took no consideration. It is my “that without which,” to be sure.

I suppose if there is a glue that holds my essentials together, though, it is Solitude. I like to sit quietly and enjoy my ice cream. I prefer to be alone for at least part of my time in the fresh air. When I workout, my headphones shut everyone else out of my mind. And of course, a little peace and quiet is the best way to find clarity in a journal entry.

I guess I am relieved that none of my Essential Four are electronic—Facebook, Netflix, or a video game—though my next selection would probably be my iPad, because that is how I do most of my reading. I might go off the rails without it, but I am not so sure.

Basically, you could make me a satisfied customer if you gave me a good outdoor workout followed by fat bowl of ice cream to savor as I write in my journal in my hammock. Day after day after day.

How about you? What core practices do you need to do to be content? Open up your journal and consider the rituals of your everyday life. Which things are essential to your contentment? What comes immediately to your mind? What category does it fit into: food, spiritual practice, toy, electronic, ritual, physical practice, location, social connection, or something else? How long has this essential thing been in your life? Has it always been essential, or did it grow on you over time? What exactly does the essential thing do for you? Is it time-consuming? Is it convenient to fit into your life, or does it require a lot of effort, sacrifice, and awkward explanations? How frequently are you forced to choose your thing over something else that is also appealing to you? For each item on your list, are they things that you actually fit into every single day, or are they things you would like to do daily but just don’t quite get to it? Do you feel the anxiety and discontentment when you leave them out of a day? How long can you go without them before there are lasting consequences to your overall happiness? Is there anything that you wish was not on your list—ice cream for me, but I can imagine other addictions and practices, too—or that you are embarrassed about how big of an effect it has on your state of mind? Is there something else you would like to add to your list, confident that a daily dose of it would be a great benefit and something that you would soon hate to do without (meditation is mine)? What is stopping you? Is your list long or short? Does the length say something about you? What do the items themselves say about you? Leave me a reply and let me know: What makes you a satisfied customer?

Be you,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you today, please pass it on. Knowing what makes you tick is a shortcut to happiness. Happiness is good.