Category Archives: Self-esteem

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

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

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seize the day,

William

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

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

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

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

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rise,

William

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

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

COVID Paranoia: The Awfulness Of Thinking You Might Have It

“Man is not worried by real problems so much as by his imagined anxieties about real problems.” –Epictetus 

“Your mind is working at its best when you’re being paranoid.  You explore every avenue and possibility of your situation at high speed with total clarity.” –Banksy, Banging Your Head Against A Brick Wall 

Hello friend,

“So, have you guys been feeling okay since you left here?”  That was the question my sister posed to me when I answered my phone last weekend.  My kids and I had visited her family for a few days earlier in the week and had left two days before.  “Uhhh…” I muttered as the alarm bells started blaring in my brain.  “Nobody’s gotten sick?  No fevers?” she continued.  By then, my heart was racing and I was up and bounding toward my children, urgently questioning them about how they felt as I reached for their foreheads to feel temperatures.  “Because your one-year-old niece has a fever…” 

While my mouth was saying, “No, everyone seems fine, though I did cough a couple of times yesterday randomly,” my mind was screaming, “WHAT HAVE I DONE???”  Instead of wondering if one of them passed the dreaded coronavirus to one of us, I immediately began to fret that I had given it to them.  No one else could have been the source, I was sure.  Only me.  I was instantly filled with guilt and regret.  How could I have been so reckless with the ones I loved?  Surely I would never forgive myself.

I sound crazy, right?  I know, I know.  And it is crazy.  It’s irrational, illogical, and way too dramatic.  But it wasn’t sudden.  I had already been building this story in my mind for a week before she called, and I have spent the days since in varying degrees of unfounded obsession on the topic.

Let me rewind the story.

Two weeks ago, I noticed the faintest little tickle in my windpipe.  It was below my throat but above my lungs.  And when I say faint, I mean that I had to do a mental “feel” through each part of my body just to notice it a few times a day.  I would say that, even in non-COVID times, I am hypersensitive to physical stuff and constantly monitoring my body for injuries, ailments, and things that either agree with it (like stretching and water) or disagree with it (like running and deep-fried anything), probably leftover habits from my days in sports.  And since the arrival of the coronavirus several months ago, that vigilance has only increased.  That is especially the case with respiratory symptoms.  I have scrutinized every single cough or sneeze for months.  Thankfully, they have been very few in number and explained away by such things as swallowing down the wrong pipe or inhaling some pepper while cooking.  But, needless to say, my radar and my guard are always up.  So it was that I noticed—if only barely– this tiny tension in my trachea and committed myself to tracking it like a hound.

Nothing changed that day, and I didn’t feel anything else suspicious.  I didn’t think about it when I got up the next day and went about my ordinary exercise and activities, but when I remembered it, my self-exam revealed that it was still there, still barely noticeable.  Even though it felt like next to nothing, the fact that it was still there was disquieting.  My kids and I were planning our visit to my sister’s family the next day, and I wanted to feel totally confident that we were all healthy.  They have been super-diligent about social distancing for months, and I was not about to bring something into their anti-viral home.  I continued to monitor my system all day and still felt good.  That evening as we packed our bags, we all took our temperatures and were just right.  I addressed my nagging concern about the faint strain in my windpipe by reminding myself to be logical.  I didn’t want to be a hypochondriac, which it seemed I was becoming.  I let it go and went to bed.

The next morning, I exercised, packed the car, and we hit the road feeling fine.  About three hours into our four-hour journey, I coughed.  Just once and very briefly, but still a cough.  As with every one of the very few coughs I have done in the last several months, it set off alarm bells.  First a trachea tickle, now a cough.  Oi!  Thankfully, it was one and done.  Again, I calmed myself down and moved on, feeling good mentally and physically.

The next day was the same: the tiny tickle and a few random, single coughs.  Given that I hadn’t had either symptom prior to the last few days, I was bothered.  The COVID era—with its varied symptoms and many asymptomatic cases–had spooked me to anything in the ballpark.  My symptoms were almost nothing—I would never have said I had a cold or mentioned any symptom if someone asked how I was doing–but that is still something.  Barely something, but still.

So it went all week long.  On our return from my sister’s house, I coughed three (single breath) times in the four hours.  I noted the increase with concern.  I noticed that my neck was a little stiff, too, and wasn’t sure if that could just be written off to my fitness routine, a poor sleeping position, or if an illness could do the same.  The next day was similar, but I was a little bit tired.  Was that the trip, with its disrupted sleep schedule and abundance of treats?  Or was that another symptom?  I still didn’t have a fever or any other noticeable symptom.  While I didn’t necessarily feel sick, I noted in my journal that I seemed “not right.”  And was that “not right” an actual, physical thing, or was it just the natural mental toll from a week of this self-analysis?  Because I’m telling you, the constant dance between “I think I have something!” and “I have lost my fool mind!” was exhausting.  It gave me a greater appreciation for the tax of mental illness.

And then it came, after a full week of hypervigilance: the call from my sister.  My niece, whom we had just left two days prior, had a fever.  Ugh!  With the call came the guilt.  The second-guesses.  Had I been wrong to talk myself off the ledge about a negligible symptom?  Should we have stayed home even though we all felt fine?  How would I have even gotten the virus?  If I gave it to her, who else?  Was the “not right” I felt this morning enough that I should be in quarantine, even if it was basically nothing?  I tortured myself with questions and doubt.  It was awful.  Thankfully, the worst of it only lasted a couple of hours, until my sister texted back that an Urgent Care visit revealed it to be “only” a double ear infection for my niece.  Sweet mercy!  What a relief!  I was off the hook.

And yet….

I was still paranoid for myself and, by extension, my household.  Was I tired because I took a long bike ride and then mowed the yard, or was it something more sinister?  Was that a sneeze my daughter just did in the other room?  How is everyone’s temperature?  Sense of taste and smell?

Perhaps by a strange twist of Fate, my wife had come across a notice from our local health department offering free drive-up COVID tests earlier in the week and suggested we do it just for the knowledge.  I thought it was a great idea, partially due to my paranoia and partially because it seems like something we should all be doing as often as possible.  I am the first one to share my disappointment and disgust with America’s abject failure with the coronavirus.  And while the complete lack of federal leadership certainly deserves much of the blame for that failure, the rest falls on us ordinary citizens.  Of course, most of that is our rush to return to “normal life” and the self-centered, foolish behavior that stemmed from that, as I have lamented in a previous letter to you.  But some of it, too, is the lack of a push to get tested (often) and then do our best version of personal contact tracing if positive.  I realize it would be much easier if there was a robust system for testing and tracing organized and funded by the government—that has proven successful all over the world, but for some reason has not occurred to our leadership—but in the absence of that, we need to take more personal responsibility.  So, I am all for random, frequent testing.  So, we made our appointment for last weekend, drove up, got swabbed, and then went home to wait.  And wait.  And wait.

As we waited, though, life went on.  I kept monitoring all of us for anything suspicious.  By Tuesday, my hint of “not right” feeling had left my body.  Even though I had a couple of small coughs per day, I felt free again somehow.  The paranoia and dread feeling eased significantly.  I was aware that a test result was still lingering out there in the future, which could throw a major wrench into my peace, but I was disengaging from the drama a bit.  I was finally able to look at my reaction—the anxiety, the guilt, the uncertainty—from a clearer perspective and note how crazy I had gotten over symptoms that were next to nothing.

That realization really got me thinking about this virus’s hold on us, though, and imagining how much worse the paranoia would be for me if I actually had full-scale symptoms, not some trace of tightness in my trachea.  Because seriously, what do people with allergies do?  When they are stuffed up, sneezing, snotting, and feeling horrible—you know, as they do at regular intervals every year—do they assume the worst and start a strict quarantine?  Is their life completely on hold until the pollen passes?  Are they begging their doctor for COVID tests to prove to themselves and everyone else that they don’t have it?   How about the rest of us when cold and flu season comes around?  It will be a nightmare!  My job said that we can’t go in to work if we are experiencing any symptom all year long.  Anything?  All of these daily checklists to get in the door anywhere—school, work, the doctor and dentist’s office, etc.—already have me on high alert.  I will be a wreck when I actually have a legitimate symptom!

I realize most people probably aren’t as nerdy about the subtleties of their body’s fluctuations as I am, and I can tell from America’s coronavirus failure that most people aren’t as concerned as I am about spreading the virus to others or as diligent about social distancing as I (and definitely my sister) am.  But I have to think that every one of us with a conscience has had and/or will have multiple bouts of the kind of COVID paranoia that I am just now coming out of.  Some may get it for obvious reasons—the onset of major fever and tightness in the chest, or learning that they were in close contact with someone who tested positive for the virus—or the paranoia may be self-generated, the way mine mostly was.  Because how can we not think that, in a nation that is already approaching six million diagnosed cases and around 175,000 deaths, that we will be in danger?  Even if you accept the risk and go on your merry way without a mask or a conscience, you still have to wonder when you might have it.

In the end, I guess I am looking at these last couple of weeks as my trial run for the upcoming school year and cold/flu season, minus the real symptoms.  It is sad that I have to cross my fingers in hopes that there will be enough tests available at that time and with a quick enough turnaround time on the results that our lives don’t feel perpetually quarantined and waiting for test results (our results came back negative, to my great relief, after five long days).  That may be our reality as the cold months descend upon us and our sniffles become perpetual.  I don’t like the thought of widespread anxiety, guilt, and dread in our society, but I suppose I ought to get used to it.  If only there were something we could do about it….

Oh wait, there is!  Now seems like a good time to get our act together.  I am all for a healthy world and am willing to do my part to stem the tide of Death and the coming tsunami of COVID paranoia.  I will mask up, wash my hands, keep my distance, and get tested.  For my sake, for your sake, and for all of our sanity.

How about you?  How worried have you yet been that you have contracted COVID-19?  Open your journal and explore your levels of both concern and conscience.  How often over the last several months have you wondered if you might have contracted the coronavirus?  What has usually stirred your concern?  Have you been in close contact with someone who had the virus?  Did you know it at the time, or did you learn later that they had it when they were with you?  Have you felt anxious after going into a grocery store or other indoor space where you were –either intentionally or accidentally—within six feet of other people?  Have you been around people from outside of your household without masks on?  Were they social occasions, or things like shopping?  Does hanging around friends without masks on make you feel more comfortable than being with unmasked strangers?  How about unmasked friends vs. masked strangers?  How about your work situation?  At your job, are you forced to interact in close proximity with people whose activities and contacts you cannot verify?  Are your nearest co-workers in masks?  What level of COVID stress or paranoia do you feel about this on a day-to-day basis?  Has it made you think about quitting or taking a leave of absence?  Have you questioned if your paycheck was worth the risk?  Which of these areas of your life—work, social, or regular life stuff (e.g. grocery store)—tend to stir up the most COVID paranoia in you?  What about your own personal triggers?  During this era of the coronavirus, have you had days when you just haven’t felt well or have had specific COVID symptoms that made you believe you might really have the virus?  Even if you hadn’t knowingly been in contact with someone, have your symptoms alone caused you any panic or distress?  How strong were the symptoms?  Were they barely noticeable, like mine, or were they clear and measurable (e.g. a fever)?  Did you get tested for the virus?  Did you go into quarantine?  Were you worried enough that you warned the people in your life about possible exposure?  If you genuinely believed you had the virus, how guilty did you feel about the people you may have infected before you realized it and went into quarantine?  Did you have much regret about people you had socialized with or otherwise interacted with?  If you have tested positive and were surprised by the result, could you look back at a symptom or recent day’s gut feeling and thought, “That must have been it!”?  Have you been tested for the virus?  Why not?  If tests were free and easy to get any time you wanted one, how often would you take one?  Wouldn’t it give you more peace of mind if you knew with certainty if you had the virus?  How about if you knew that everyone around you was uninfected?  How do you think your anxiety level will change as you go through cold and flu season and the inevitable symptoms you will feel that match COVID-19?  Will you be willing to test?  Will you be quick to quarantine when the symptoms come on?  Will you be diligent about communicating with the people you have been in contact with?  Are you anticipating that your regular life will get entirely shut down by the onset of symptoms—whether COVID or not—at least once in the coming months?  Does that worry you, or will you just roll with it when it comes?  Are your worries more along the lines of the disruptions it will cause to your family’s routine, or do you worry more about the actual sickness, death, and the long-term health consequences from the disease?  Or do you worry more about spreading it?  Do you think you fret about this virus more or less than the average person?  On the whole, are you being a conscientious citizen and doing your part to minimize the spread of the virus so that fewer people will die and the country can get back to school and work, or are you mostly doing what you want and not being inconvenienced by the threat of being infected or infecting others in your community?  If we were all a little more paranoid about being infected and infecting others, might our country be doing better in terms of cases and deaths?  Could a little COVID paranoia actually be healthy?  Leave me a reply and let me know: How anxious are you about getting and spreading the virus? 

Be well and be considerate,

William

P.S. If today’s letter resonated with you, please share it with your communities.  We will only truly thrive again if we do it together!

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

“But I’m Not A Racist!” And Other Things We White Folks Need To Do Better

“Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.” –Benjamin Franklin

“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.” –Martin Luther King, Jr.

Hello friend,

What a week to have skin in America! In the wake of the tragic and wholly unnecessary killing of George Floyd by a police officer to start the week, Minneapolis, a city with a long history of racial injustice and inequity, has been consumed by protests and destruction as its residents process their understandable grief and frustration. I live a safe distance away in a suburb of the city but have felt the waves of emotion reaching my doorstep in a way that is deeper and more personal than the other seemingly countless and regular newsworthy occurrences of racial injustice in America.

Just in the last few weeks, we have been dealing with new revelations in the case of Ahmaud Arbery, a young black man who, while out jogging, was tracked down in a truck by two white men who had decided that he was a burglar and shot him dead in the street. Also in the news has been the killing of EMT Breonna Taylor, a young black woman, by police who broke into her home–the wrong home, as it turned out–unannounced while she was sleeping and shot her multiple times while her boyfriend tried to defend her from what he believed to be a home invasion.

With the sadness and anger from those two tragedies hovering in the American air, joining the long list of unjustifiable killings of black people–Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Oscar Grant, Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, and Terrence Crutcher, to name just a few off the top of my head–we woke up Tuesday morning to viral video of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling for several minutes on the neck of a handcuffed George Floyd as Floyd repeatedly says he cannot breathe. We already knew from the headline that, of course, George Floyd had been killed.

So began this week, a week that has continued like a dark cloud hovering over my home and, a little further up the freeway, my city. The mood in the house–which has white me, my black wife, and my two biracial children, ages 11 and 9, one who looks more black and one who could pass as white–has been at times outraged, depressed, furious, disappointed, appalled, apprehensive, curious, irritated, and thoroughly exhausted. Predicting it from hour to hour or nailing it down is impossible (though the exhaustion permeates). It’s like when I read the news articles about it on Facebook, and I have to choose the emoji to react with for the person posting. I tend to sway between angry and sad. I’m fully both.

Sadly, one thing I am not–and neither are my kids, which is truly horrifying–is surprised.

I have lived in this country long enough and done enough personal work to educate myself to both the historical facts and to the flesh-and-blood people and their stories that I feel like I somewhat know the score. It is plain to me that we live in a society based on white supremacy. We, especially we white folks, dare not to speak of it and deny it at every mention, which is how it has retained its power over centuries. But it is plain to an objective eye, if such a thing exists.

White lives are valued more highly than black lives. When doing the same job, white people get paid more. When convicted of the same crime, black people receive more severe punishments. A white person is believed in favor of a black person when their stories conflict. (And yes, I know there are other colors in this silly invention called race, but I trust that you understand the argument and the expediency of sticking with black and white for the moment. Thank you for your grace.) When fashion or language or housing or hair is compared between the groups, we work from the assumption that the white whatever is “just normal,” the standard, without distinguishing characteristics to judge it, whereas “black” things have ways that are different and can be judged (like when white kids do badly in school or break rules, they are considered individually–Timmy has anger issues or a lower IQ–or are “just being kids,” but when black kids behave badly it is taken as a reflection of their race, not of their individual difference). I could go on and on, but you get it.

Thus, it was not at all surprising to me to hear on Tuesday morning from a co-worker that an unarmed black man was killed by a police officer. She said that there was a bystander video that she couldn’t bring herself to watch. I knew it was about to be a challenging week.

So, when I arrived back at home later in the day, I immediately went to one of my news apps to learn more. While I was there gleaning information about the killing of George Floyd, a different article caught my eye. You have possibly seen the viral video recorded by bird enthusiast Christian Cooper, a black man, after he asked a white woman, Amy Cooper (not related), to leash her dog in an area of Central Park in New York City where leashes are required. This caused her to become very upset. A tense exchange ensued, during which he asked her not to come close to him and she then threatened, “I’m calling the cops. I’m gonna tell them that there’s an African-American man threatening my life!” She repeated that claim to the 911 operator multiple times in the video.

I could taste the bile coming up and could feel my blood boil. It wasn’t that I was any more surprised by this video that did not, fortunately, lead to more unnecessary violence, than I was by the video of George Floyd’s killing by Derek Chauvin. Rather, it was that this ordinary, everyday argument in New York City between Christian Cooper and Amy Cooper symbolized the entire culture of white supremacy–a culture that we are so deeply woven into that we don’t even recognize it or acknowledge it–that flows so seamlessly and inevitably to the death of George Floyd (or Eric Garner or Trayvon Martin or Tamir Rice or….).

The fact that people of color are seen as less than, worse than, not to be believed, of little consequence, and dangerous sets the stage for George Floyd’s tragic death and the deaths of untold millions of people of color throughout the sordid history of this country. Whiteness has a power that people of color can do nothing about. Amy Cooper knew that in the park that day, whether she had ever consciously formulated the thought. She laid bare America’s essence and gave away our secret in those few short words: “I’m gonna tell them that there’s an African-American man threatening my life!” Translation: “I can end your life right now. I’m the one everyone will believe. I own you.”

As I said, the video didn’t surprise me at all. After all, in the age of smartphones, we have become accustomed to seeing the kind of “threats” that white people call the police about regarding black people just trying to live (grilling in the park, having a lemonade stand, using the gym, etc.). Much like with the police killings of unarmed black people, we see them more often now not because they occur more often, but because there are cameras.

Outside of the video’s encapsulation of America’s signature theme and its perfect timing with the killing of George Floyd, I was, in fact, not so interested in it. What caught my attention more from the story was Amy Cooper’s apology. After all, her blatant racism had gone viral and her employer had suspended (and later fired) her in its wake. So, of course, she said she was sorry. No surprise there. The kicker, though, was her use of the now-standard line for anyone who is caught doing or saying something patently racist: “I’m not a racist.” It’s a classic.

Believe it or not, I don’t care whether Amy Cooper is a racist. My point today is not to make a case for what makes someone a certified racist and what makes someone else a good-hearted person who, in a moment of weakness, committed an obviously racist action (or how many of those racist actions it would take for that person to slide into the genuinely racist category). No, I mostly want to offer my fellow white people a suggestion or two about our racism (which is inevitable given the culture in which we live and our privileged position in it).

In your apology for your racist action, please don’t include, “But I’m not a racist.” And definitely don’t lead with it. It sounds so disingenuous after what you have just said or done to get yourself in hot water (I don’t want to list examples). Even if you believe that in your heart and even if you have a long list of examples to “prove” it, saying that is not the way to be heard. Maybe something more like, “That was a horribly racist thing I said. I didn’t even know I had something so vile in me, but clearly I do. I am sorry.” Or this: “Even though I was raised in a racist family, I thought I had moved beyond that. My racist action today showed me I still have work to do. I am so sorry.” If you still really, really want to say you aren’t a racist, the furthest leash you might stretch could be, “I truly don’t feel anything negative against black people, so I didn’t think I could do something like that. But I can see that it was a racist act, and I take responsibility. I am so sorry, and I promise to do better.” All of these apologies, of course, work better if you actually mean it and change your behavior. It is one small thing.

My other small suggestion today, my white friend, is to raise your voice and take a stand for people of color and against white supremacy. As I said before, people of color have no real say in whether the American culture of white supremacy (and therefore inequality, abuse of power, injustice, protest, riots, etc. in roughly that order) gets to continue. Black and brown people have been calling us on our abuses since we showed up on the land centuries ago, dragging some of them with us and slaying others in our wake. That has not changed us. It is unfair and phony of us to keep asking people of color to explain injustice and inequity to us, to tell us their experience so we can understand our own. They are tired of explaining (not to mention tired of the rest). The whole thing is exhausting for them, and it is simply not their job. People of color have borne the burden of white people’s culture of racism for centuries and been powerless to change it. Not because they are weak or stupid or unorganized, and certainly not because they are less than white people. They haven’t changed white supremacy because white supremacy is white people’s responsibility. It is our burden. It was created by us, and it must be undone by us.

So take a stand. Use your white voice, which is way more powerful than you understand it to be. This week I have been so moved to see a couple of my white friends on social media, whom I have never seen say anything about injustice or the need for anti-racism, actually speak up on their feed, with either a shared article or a heartfelt paragraph or two about how George Floyd’s death was wrong and how we must work to root out racism. I thought of these normally-silent white people’s respective spheres of influence–some small, others quite large–and the impact their voice might have to free up other silent-but-pained folks to speak their own truth about these matters. I thought, “What if everyone who was bothered by George Floyd’s death actually spoke up in a public forum?” That could be in conversation with others at a church or social event where they had never previously dared talk about such things, or it could be a social media site where they typically just watch silently or post only about “non-political” things. What if they raised their virtual hand and simply said, “This is wrong, and we need to change.”?

We are such a culture of people who need permission–from celebrities, trendsetters, the cool people in our social circle, our peers–to say what we really feel and what is hard. My goodness, we could change so much if a critical mass of white people would just speak up on behalf of people of color and the injustices brought to bear on them by our system of white supremacy. Equality would become cool. Anti-racism would be trending. Imagine that! Congress members would have to listen to their justice-minded constituents because there were just so many of them. The tide would turn.

It could happen. It really could. But it won’t happen just because black and brown people have had enough of our racism, just because they are sick and tired of being held back and held down and brutalized by the police and by unfair housing practices or racist bosses or neighbors. It won’t happen because they protest peacefully or because they riot or loot or burn buildings. We have already proven that none of those methods are effective. The only way our system is going to change is if we white folks take on the challenge ourselves, if we take responsibility for the job that should have been ours all along.

There are a million ways available to help the cause, and I hope you will take advantage of many of them. But even if you can just take one small step today, I hope it is by raising your voice in a way or in a space that you have not before. I guarantee you the world will be better for it. If you take my virtual hand, I promise to take that step with you. I’m here and ready.

How about you? What role have you been playing in the racial dynamic? Open up your journal and explore your relationships with the other humans on the planet and the systems and decisions that have placed you there. On a scale of 1 to 10, if one is an avid anti-racist and ally to people of color and 10 is an unabashed bigot, where do you land when it comes to your level of racism? If we asked the ten people closest to you about your level, do you think they would rate you higher or lower? How would you rate them? Do they exhibit more or fewer ignorant attitudes and behaviors than you? Are you aware of your specific weaknesses and failings, such as which groups you are particularly biased against and how those biases present themselves in the world? Are you ever shocked at how narrow-minded, even vile, a thought you have is? How about a comment or action? Have you ever apologized to someone regarding a racist comment or action? If you haven’t, should you have? Do you feel embarrassed now at some of the racist things you did or said in your past? In what ways have you changed? Can you point to incidents or reasons why you have changed? Are you now more open-minded and accepting (even celebratory) of other races, or have you views become more narrow and bigoted with age? How have the people in your friend group influenced your perspective on matters of race, equity, and justice? How have you influenced them? Are you able to speak freely with your friends on these matters? Do you? How about your family? What percentage of your loved ones would you consider to be a true ally to people of color? If you had to name percentages for the people in your circle, how many would you say are generally 1) racist, 2) not racist, or 3) anti-racist? In which category are you? How big of a stretch would it be for you to become anti-racist, to be an intentional ally to people of color and speak out against racist actions and systems? What would it cost you? Discomfort? Friends? What could it gain you? Greater self-respect? A richer life? Friends? What is your typical reaction when an injustice occurs, such as the murder of George Floyd? Do you ignore it? Do you shake your head and move on? Do you get a bit upset but not say anything? Do you talk about it with a loved one? Do you speak out on social media or in other large groups, such as church or social gatherings? Is it clear to the people around you what your position is regarding people of color and the injustices they deal with in our society? If not, why not? Are you trying to protect them–your people–or protect yourself by not raising an uncomfortable topic? Are you being brave or cowardly? Overall, how uncomfortable addressing this whole topic are you? Does the term “white supremacy” as a normal term for America’s culture make you cringe? Does it feel wrong to admit you are the beneficiary of white supremacy and a part of the group that keeps other groups down? How does it feel when someone says that doing nothing, staying silent, and staying “neutral” on these matters only aids the oppressor and does untold damage to people of color every day? Is there really no neutral? Do you think the discomfort around this topic is all the more evidence that we hide from it in our everyday discourse? Do you agree that keeping white supremacy out of conversation and out of our heads has only made it more difficult to root out? Why don’t you speak about it more often? If you have people of color in your life, do you think it comes across to them as a betrayal when you say nothing about these regular acts of gross injustice? Can you be a true friend to them and not say something? How much of an idea do you think you have about what it is to live in their skin every day? How can you do better for them? What will it take to get you to start on that? Is there something you can do today? I dare you. Leave me a reply and let me know: What will you do to bring more equity and justice into the world?

Be the light,

William

P.S. If today’s letter resonated with you, please share it with your community. This task will require all of us!

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

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

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

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May your burdens be lightened,

William

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

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

So Much Left Undone: The Tragedy of Life Cut Short

“Death is so terribly final, while life is full of possibilities.” –George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones

“You’re alive, Bod. That means you have infinite potential. You can do anything, make anything, dream anything. If you can change the world, the world will change. Potential. Once you’re dead, it’s gone. Over. You’ve made what you’ve made. Dreamed your dream. Written your name.” –Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book 

“You must decide if you are going to rob the world or bless it with the rich, valuable, potent, untapped resources locked away within you.” –Myles Munroe, Understanding Your Potential–Discovering the Hidden You

Hello friend,

I was at an arcade/sports bar for a kid’s birthday party when I heard the news of Kobe Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash. I looked up at the bank of TV screens above the bar and there was his picture and the dates of his birth and death. I was stunned. I shook my head, recalling that I had just that morning read an article that mentioned him congratulating LeBron James on passing Kobe on the NBA’s all-time scoring list the night before. And now he was dead, just like that. It was a shock.

But the real pain for me came later in the day, when I learned that his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, or “Gigi,” was also on the flight and killed. My heartache only grew when, in the following days, I learned that among the seven others who died in the crash were two of Gigi’s basketball teammates, Alyssa Altobelli and Payton Chester. Kids. Kids whose brilliance was snuffed out in an instant and whose future contributions to this world we will never get to experience and appreciate. As iconic and mythical as Kobe Bryant was to millions of people across the world, it is the deaths of those girls that I can’t seem to shake free of. Even two weeks later, they hang like a cloud over my heart.

My daughter, India, is 11 years old right now, just two years younger than Gigi and her teammates. She is probably both the kindest and the smartest person I know. Her compassion knows no bounds, and she is always looking for ways to help people and make the world a better place. She is clearly on the path to greatness in one form or another (and knowing her, probably many forms). Her existence on the planet, when all is said and done, will surely be a net-positive. I cannot imagine the loss to the world–never mind my personal loss–if she were to die at the age 13. Oh, the wonder and brilliance that we would all miss out on! A loss so big that only those who already knew her could fathom because she had not yet been fully unleashed by the gift of maturity to do her special thing for us all.

So much potential. So many possibilities. So much still on the table. So much left undone. It is devastating to consider.

That is what I think about with Gigi, Payton, and Alyssa. What magnificence were they going to offer us? How were they going to illuminate our world with their gifts? Was Gigi really going to be a basketball savant like her father, as video suggests, and become the next icon of the sport? Would they become teachers, artists, scientists, or senators? Would they raise wonderful children? Would they raise our awareness? Would they break down barriers? What did they leave on the table??? To depart from us at that age, leaving us grasping fruitlessly to “We’ll never know…” as an answer, is truly devastating. It is the essence of tragedy.

But as I think about that condition, I begin to wonder: At what age is it NOT tragic? Seriously. What is the point when we can be satisfied that someone has emptied their bucket and given the world a satisfactory portion of their potential?

I look no further than Kobe Bryant himself. While I was never a big fan of his as a sports hero–though I had great respect for his work ethic and competitive will, I was turned off by other parts of him and more drawn to other athletes–I had, in the few short years since his retirement, become fascinated with his curiosity and his intellect, as well as his ambition for projects beyond basketball. I had known already that he was fluent in multiple languages, a trait which I respect. But he had also become a true storyteller, creating a series of books and even winning an Oscar for a short film he wrote, produced, and narrated called Dear Basketball. He seemed to want to keep expanding and sharing his light in as many ways as possible, including coaching his daughter’s basketball team. So, even though he had a very long, full career as a pro athlete, inspired millions of people around the globe, made a fortune, and had four kids and multiple successful business ventures–more than most of us dare dream of–I would say he had an unfinished life. At 41, it appeared he had a lot more to give. That is tragic to me.

It’s different, of course, than the loss of the three children. He got to live out his dream, at least. But still, with all of his potential–a bright, curious mind with burning ambition and the money to fuel it–he clearly left a lot on the table. We’ll never know…

It saddens me to see potential go unfulfilled.

This heaviness I have been carrying around with the losses of these young people and all that they might have been has inevitably led to thoughts of my own life and death. Beyond those awful visions of losing my children at this age and the world being deprived of all their potential magic, I have pondered my own death and the relative importance of what I would leave undone if I should go now, at 47. How much more do I have in me, and how valuable is that to the world? Can I still be a net-positive? At bottom, I suppose the question is this: How much of a tragedy would my death right now be?

My mind goes immediately to my kids and the thing I believe I have done best in my life: parenting them. They are only 11 and 9 now, so no matter how solid the foundation has been laid to this point, I still have a job to do. So many lessons to teach, meals to prepare, and hugs to give. Is there any age before adulthood when kids DON’T need all of the material and emotional support that a parent provides? There is just so much more I am going to do with them and for them? With them, I feel like an unqualified Good. It is the one spot in the world where I feel essential.

While I am less confident of my necessity in my wife’s life–she would be and do Amazing under just about any circumstances–I hope that my partnership with her can help her to rise even higher, do even more great deeds, and leave an ever-increasing impact on the world. I like to think that the supporting role I play in our duo allows the light to keep reaching her so she can amplify it and spread it out into her many areas of influence.

I hope I have some good writing ahead of me that will enrich the lives of my readers and those around them. I want to think that these letters to you continue to provide you with fodder for self-reflection and journaling that will lead you, like it lead me, to a greater self-knowledge and, in turn, a deeper sense of gratitude and thus happiness. I believe in the value of my purpose and my message, and I believe I have more to share on that front. I hope that includes more books and many more letters.

I know that I have more works of service in me as well, and also just more positive interpersonal communications. I plan to be a better human: more kind, more generous, more forgiving, more compassionate. And hey, I plan to have even more fun and adventure, making myself even more grateful and happy, which I know seems selfish on the surface, but I truly believe that happier people are a benefit to the world.

All in all, though I may not reach the millions that Kobe Bryant reached, I think I can be a net-positive to this place if Fate allows me to stick around. But especially for my kids. They are going to do magic here, and I need to help facilitate that. That is what saddens me so much about Gigi Bryant, Alyssa Altobelli, and Payton Chester. They were going to do magic here, too. I hope that any extra years I am granted here can be filled with such works of Good that I can make up for some bit of what we lost with them. I hope my life can do honor to theirs. And in the end, when it is my turn to go, I hope that I have wrung so much out of the years I was granted that it seems no tragedy at all that I have gone.

How about you? When you arrive at the end of your life, how much will you leave on the table? Open your journal and consider both your realized and unrealized potential. How have you done so far in your lifetime? Have you used your talents wisely and generously? Have you been of service to others? Do you feel confident that your existence has been a net-positive, that the world is better because you were here? Whether or not that is true, what would be the loss to the world if you were to die today? What more do you have left to give? In what specific areas of your life do you plan to be the most valuable? Family? Career? Volunteering? Sharing your voice? General personal kindness? Which people in your sphere of influence would miss out the most if you were to die now? How aware are they of that? Based on the life you have lived so far, could we make a pretty good guess as to what you have left to contribute, or do you plan to surprise us? How steeply can you raise your trajectory? Does the possibility excite you? How will your legacy differ if you live 20 more years from the legacy you would leave today? At what point in your journey–past, present, or future–would your loss be deemed a tragedy for the world (I mean beyond just being very sad for your loved ones, which is a given)? Do you mourn people differently depending upon how old they are when they die? If you had to pick an age when it no longer feels so tragic when someone dies, what is that number? 60? 78 (average life expectancy)? 90? Do you mourn people differently based on their talents and what they might have left to give, regardless of age? In the case of the helicopter crash involving Kobe Bryant, which did you find yourself mourning more: the 41-year-old, multi-talented celebrity or the 13-year-old kids? What do you imagine each of them left undone? Do the deaths of strangers shake you and stay with you? Is it because of their potential and what they never got to do? How about thoughts of your own “early” death? Do they rattle you? Is it because of what you might never do? Does that motivate you do better now so as to have fewer regrets about your impact and achievements? If you died now, what would you most lament having not done? How devastating is that thought? Leave me a reply and let me know: How tragic would it be if you were to die today?

Carpe diem,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it with your community. Let’s all live our best lives now!

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

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

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

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

Hello friend,

“Is my hair good?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be a beautiful soul,

William

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

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

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

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

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only the soul knows.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twinkle on,

William

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

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

 

 

 

A Loving Reminder: Have You Kept Your Relationship Promises?

“Together again, It would feel so good to be in your arms, where all my journeys end.  If you can make a promise, if it’s one that you can keep, I vow to come for you if you wait for me.” –Tracy Chapman, The Promise 

“You’re looking for the wrong person. But not just any wrong person: it’s got to be the right wrong person–someone you lovingly gaze upon and think, ‘This is the problem I want to have.’” –Andrew Boyd, Daily Afflictions: The Agony of Being Connected to Everything in the Universe

Hello friend,

If you know me, you know I have just about zero desire to attend your wedding. Or your graduation or your funeral, for that matter. But definitely not your wedding. I don’t like ceremonies. The pomp and circumstance, the dressing up, all the make-up and hair products, the extravagant decorations, the cookie-cutter procedure, the religious decorum and forced reverence. None of that is for me. And that is just the ceremony. Don’t even get me started on the reception! Small-talk, over-served alcohol, and too much noise to have a good conversation. Even when I like the people there, I don’t want to be there. It is just not my scene.

So, you can imagine how thrilled I was when my wife informed me recently that we–just the two of us, no kids allowed–would be going to her friend’s wedding, set for this past weekend. I looked forward to it like a root canal.

But a funny thing happened in that glowing, well-appointed hall. Instead of the typical, stodgy affair full of artifice and repetition of the standards, it was highly personal and authentic to the bride and groom. The video looping on the big video screen as the guests made their way in was from one of those “one second a day” apps that showed highlights of their last year together, prompting lots of laughs, oohs, and ahhs, and just generally drawing everyone into the atmosphere of community and love. The officiant, a friend of theirs, was funny and sincere, and they were deeply grateful for everyone’s presence and full of tears at each other’s expressions of their true love.

I listened most closely to the vows that they had written together, the promises they were making to each other about the kind of people they wanted to be for each other and the kind of shared life they wanted to create in the years to come. At every turn, they seemed to hit the right notes in both the substance of what they were saying and the conviction of their delivery. I believed them.

Inevitably, as I sat there taking it all in–and yes, crying along with them–my thoughts swirled back to my own wedding and the heartfelt vows my wife and I made to each other. Through streaming tears, we promised each other our very best for all the days of our lives. It was deep. It was beautiful. And it was sincere. I meant every last, golden word.

That was sixteen years ago. Leave it to Father Time to add some dents and dull the shine of even the most heartfelt promises.

Don’t get me wrong: I haven’t failed entirely as a life partner. I sleep in my own bed every night. I cheer for my wife’s victories and lend an ear and a shoulder on her tougher days. I make her needs a priority. I co-parent with all my heart. Taken in broad strokes, I have kept my priorities in line.

But when I take a closer look–as I am prone to do in this journaling life–I cannot deny that I have also failed to live up to the idealistic vision I held of my vows on that magical lovefest of a day those sixteen years ago. I have too often failed to give my wife the benefit of the doubt and failed to assume positive intent when things haven’t gone as I had hoped. I have held onto slights–whether real or perceived–for too long after they happened. The same for arguments and other hurt feelings. I have often used my solitary nature to justify my silence and withdrawal when I needed to rise to a situation and communicate my Truth in order to clear the air and allow a storm to pass more quickly. I have been resentful when the parenting load has become excessive instead of recognizing that as part of the natural cycle and letting it go.

I haven’t been good at the little things that are really the big things, like being sure to say “I love you” every day, giving meaningful hellos and goodbyes, and just checking in to make sure everything is okay, with her and with us. I think I have simply too often made it about my wife and about me, individually, rather than about us. That feels like a pretty significant failure in the face of the vows I made and still believe in. I am not proud of that.

I was chatting with a woman at the wedding last weekend about the moving sincerity of the bride and groom’s love and the delivery of their vows. The woman, who has been married for several years and has a toddler, joked, “Yeah, I remember we made vows like that once. Ha!” Translation: “Good luck keeping them as Life pours it on year after year!” I laughed, of course, as I knew where she was coming from. I know the journey from heart-fluttering, tear-inducing professions of love and lofty promises to petty arguments and isolating silence. I have felt the slow, subtle erosion.

It is why the dreaded wedding was just what the doctor ordered. Seeing and feeling that young, mad love and listening to those sincere promises reminded me of so many things. It reminded me that commitments are beautiful and brave. It reminded me that a couple united and focused on the right things is all-powerful. It reminded me how amazing my wife is and how fabulous life with her can be. It reminded me of the unabashed joy of being in love. It reminded me that all that stuff is still in me.

Those reminders have lingered through the week. On our way home from the wedding, clearly caught up in these love lessons, my wife and I talked about how to create more quality time, both with each other and with our kids, in the midst of our busy lives, rather than only when we go on vacation. We have been better this week with greetings, hugs, and kisses. She even happened up the stairs last night as I was listening to a playlist and a song from our wedding came on. We embraced and had a tender slow dance. It felt like true love. It was beautiful.

It is a magnificent thing to learn a lesson from young people. Sometimes truths are just so much clearer to them than they are to us life veterans with all of our baggage and battle scars. They are better at identifying purity than we are. Ideals are livable to them. So we learn. I am learning.

But there was also a consolation lesson a few days after being humbled by the fresh love of the newly married couple. My wife had posted a photo on social media of the two of us out of the house for our rare date night at the wedding. The bride subsequently appeared in the Comments section down below: “….Your relationship is such an inspiration to us!” Whoa. Really? Hmmm. I was stopped in my tracks. I guess we all have something to teach, and we do that teaching whether we know it or not. I am deeply grateful to have so many sources of inspiration in my life, pleasant reminders of the kind of person I can be and the person I have promised to be.

How about you? Who is the person you have promised to be in your most important relationship? Open your journal and examine your commitments and how well you have stuck to them. Who is the person you have made your firmest commitment to? Was it a commitment made in public–like a wedding–or something just between the two of you? When you made your promises, what type of person did you imagine yourself being in the relationship? What ideals did you promise to hold to? Which actions did you see yourself taking? Have you had to be all that you promised that you would be? Have there been times and situations that don’t seem to have been covered by the promises you made? How did you navigate that? Which of your promises mean the most to you? What is it about that type of commitment that resonates with you? Are there commitments you have made that the other person doesn’t even know about, things that you silently hold yourself to? Which of your promises have you gotten most lazy about in the time since you made them? Has your slippage been slow and subtle–almost unnoticeable–or have you taken steeper falls? Have you completely broken any vows? How does that sit with you today? What are the biggest weaknesses in your relationship from your end? Has your relationship survived your worst? If so, what does it take to rise up from your lowest points? Are you inspired by other people’s relationships? Which people in your life have the strongest partnerships? What makes them so? Do you talk to them about it and seek guidance, or do you learn just by watching? What would you ask them if you could? Does young (or new) love inspire you? How about weddings? What can you learn from these people who are nearer the start of their journey together than the end? What do you have to teach them? Do you try? What one promise would you tell them is the most important one to keep? Leave me a reply and let me know: Are you keeping the promises of your relationship?

Love big,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you today, please share it. Spread the LOVE!!!

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

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

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

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

Oh, if only it were that simple.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gulp down every moment,

William

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