Category Archives: Self-knowledge

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.

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

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

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

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

Politics is morals put into policy form.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do your best,

William

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

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

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

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

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

Hello friend,

“Is my hair good?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be a beautiful soul,

William

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

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

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

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

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only the soul knows.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twinkle on,

William

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

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

 

 

 

Witnessing Magic: Which Historical Event Would You Experience?

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

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make your own wave,

William

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

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

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

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

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reach out,

William

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

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

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.

Hanging Out With God: Have You Found Your One Sacred Place?

“Your sacred space is where you can find yourself over and over again.” –Joseph Campbell

Hello friend,

Last week, I returned to a spot that has held a mythic place in my mind for the nearly-two decades since my last visit. I was a little nervous in anticipation, I admit. I had waited so many years to be back and wondered if its luster would have somehow worn off in the meantime, or if, perhaps, I had changed so much with age that it would be like one of those movies you thought were so great when you were growing up but come to realize that they were actually awful when you watch them later. Would my magic bubble be burst when I finally reached the mountaintop?

I actually was going up a mountain, too. Not exactly to the top, but up a few miles, to a place accessible only by foot trail. I would follow the trail through the forest and along a narrow gorge where crystal-clear water races down the mountainside out of my mythic lake. Once there, I would see what I have been fantasizing about since my last visit: a tree-lined, crystalline, glassy-smooth lake surrounded by steep mountains reaching to the sky, with long, narrow waterfalls plummeting from the high ridges down the sheer faces and emptying into the lake.

This time, though, it didn’t feel like I was on a visit exactly. No, I was certainly on what would more accurately be referred to as a pilgrimage. I was going to a place that felt holy to me, and I was walking with reverence.

I don’t go to church. It would be easiest to say that the only reasons I stay away are my disconnect with organized religion and all the rituals and rules that go along with that, as well as the hypocrisy of those I see claiming religious justification for their immoral actions. But that explanation doesn’t tell the whole story. Some of it is that I have always felt my deepest connection with God–call it the Universe, Divine Source, All That Is, whatever you like, but I will go with “God” today and trust that you can get what I’m saying–in places that were not a “house of God.” Concert halls. Dinner tables. Classrooms. Libraries. But most of all, out of doors. With Mother Nature.

I feel God’s presence when I walk in the tall trees or along the rushing creek. I feel God coursing through my veins when I dive under the surface of the ocean or the clear mountain lake. I hear God in the songs of the birds. I see God in the stars and in the shimmer of sunlight off the water. I feel God in the breeze upon my cheeks. In all of those instances, my soul is at Peace and yet more fully awake and alive than it is anywhere else in the world. It is deeply grateful. And it is reverent.

I remember those soul-stirrings being at their zenith on a day those decades ago when I climbed up alone to my lake. I fought through the brush on the trackless side of the lake, away from any possible human visitors, to get to the far end, nearest where the waterfall-fed streams joined and emptied themselves into the crystalline lake surrounded my those majestic rock faces. I set down my pack there on the shore, plopped myself down, and soaked in the magnificence of it all. I entered a blissful trance. I lost track of time, so enveloped was I in a state of reverie.

Each of the handful of times I have made that climb up to the lake, I have found myself similarly awed and entranced, even when other people were with me or strangers were there to potentially distract me. My soul just seems to tap into a field of energy it does not otherwise access as I make my way through the world. It is a sacred Bliss, a communion with the All. Quite simply, it feels like I am with God. Joined. Immersed in. Communing. I have noted it in my journal after each of my visits. There was even one time I had the book along, and, as we arrived at the lake, I drifted from my family members, climbed out onto a fallen log in the middle of the water where no one would approach, slipped into that Divine Peace, and opened my journal to expound:

Mecca. The pilgrimage has been made to this eternal holy shrine once again. And again, it is absolutely awe-inspiring. The great falls pour down the steep faces. The great pines rise like Heaven’s soldiers. The jagged peaks signal God’s final perfecting touches on the Earth. The basin itself is nothing but holy water. The term “God’s Country” is often thrown around haphazardly, but to use it in this place might be to finally do it justice. I truly feel like a divine being here, as though I have somehow entered rarified air. Like a special blessing has been made for me to slip into a dimension beyond. It is an energy here. I, from my perch on the dead trees in the middle of the water, look at all of the landlocked hikers and don’t see them picking up on the energy. For me, however, there has never been anything so palpable. It is as obvious as the dead tree I am sitting on or the water at my feet. It concentrates in this bowl created by these mountains, hovering constantly yet all the while in a state of graceful motion. Grace. Somehow the word sounds so right when I use it in the description. This place is pure Grace.

That was 21 years ago. It fascinates me to read that and see how thoroughly “God-y” it is. That is definitely unique amongst my many thousands of journal entries. But, truly, that is how that place was for me. It just touched a totally different place in me. A special place.

And it is why I was a bit nervous as I arrived at the trailhead last week. I still wanted to have a special place, a personal sanctuary in this world, with what certainly used to feel like a direct line to God. Would I still feel it, or was that feeling a function of the open-hearted, soulful approach to life I embodied in those obligation-free years of my twenties? So much of my favorite art–books, movies, etc.–comes from that time, so I wondered if I was just more in tune to divinity and inspiration in that period.

I am so pleased–and greatly relieved–to report that the sacred energy was still there for me. I felt it the moment I emerged from the shade of the forest trail and into the bowl of shimmering quietude that is my lake. And I kept feeling it as I explored the shore and studied the steep rock faces and the waterfalls plunging from them. I was transfixed. Simultaneously, I was transported to another realm, a field of higher energy. I was bathed in Love. My impulses alternated between wanting to howl my sheer delight to the heavens and weeping with humility. I was a raw nerve, swimming in a dizzying Bliss. It was profoundly moving.

And it was still mine! The long years in between visits and the jadedness that those years attached to me had done nothing to break the spell. It was still my sanctuary.

But it is just mine, I assume. Notice how I mentioned the other hikers in my journal entry and how I “don’t see them picking up on the energy;” I felt that way this time, too. That is presumptuous, of course, and I know that it has become an increasingly popular hike over the ensuing years, but I still like to think that that enchanting, Divine energy I tap into at my mountain lake is specific to me. Something aligns with my spirit in a profound way that I don’t quite feel anywhere else in the world–though many places touch and inspire me–and I can’t imagine other people as overtaken by it as I am. It is my sanctuary, not someone else’s.

My guess is that most of the other visitors to my lake feel a sense of awe and wonder at its stunning beauty and its dynamic stillness–probably the way I feel sitting by the ocean or walking in the forest–but I don’t believe they feel that same direct communion with God that I feel. Maybe that is just my ego’s desire to be unique and special; I admit that I want the place for myself. And I am territorial by nature; I like my own space wherever I am. Perhaps that also sways my view. So, when I tend to take the view of, “The world is full of natural beauty; the other visitors can have their own places,” I could just be being selfish. But in my heart of hearts, I don’t believe so. I believe that somehow my soul has found its direct line to its source in God. Perhaps its only line.

I am wildly grateful that I found this sacred place those many years ago and tapped into it. It has been a source of unending Peace and inspiration. I am all the more grateful that I was able to return to it after all this time and find its magical effect on me still in full force. I will remain open to the possibility of finding this unique, Divine connection in other places in the world, but I also will go knowing how rare a gift this special is. I am guessing that not everyone gets one of these. I will not take it for granted. And I will return, hopefully sooner than later. I told my children while we were up there that if they are inclined to make the effort when I die, I would like some of my ashes to go there, to my sacred place, to feel at home. I suppose it doesn’t matter, though, for I think my soul has always been there. There with God, just hanging out.

How about you? Have you discovered your sacred place on Earth? Open up your journal and take a journey in your mind. Think of all the places you have ever been. Have you found a spot where you feel in complete union with the Divine? If the answer is yes, how would you describe your feelings when in that place? When there, are you still able to keep your wits about you, or do you become overwhelmed with emotions and impulses? Describe the place itself. Is it a place in Nature, or is it manmade? Is it indoors or out? Does it have religious significance, i.e. is it a designated holy place, such as a church or shrine? Does it have extraordinary beauty, or is it unimpressive to most people? How public of a place is it? Is it visited by many people? Do they come for the same reasons that you do? Do you have a sense of how many people get that same Divine communion that you do while there? Do you share your extraordinary experience with others while you are there? If so, does that amplify the feeling or detract from it? Do moments this intense belong in the public forum, or are they more special when you feel somehow specially selected to feel them? Should you keep them to yourself? How many times have you been to your sacred place? Was it a special, one-time visit, or is it part of your usual routine? If it is more usual, has the effect worn off over time, or does it remain as profound and moving as the first time? Is there some value to keeping the visits infrequent to maintain the depth and intensity of feeling, or is it a “the more, the better” deal? Do you feel bad for the people who have never found a place that feels truly holy and personal? Okay, for those on the other side of the coin, who have never found that one magical place, how do you feel about that? Is it something you think about? Does it frustrate you? Are you actively searching for that place? How do you envision your special place? Do you trust that you will just know it by the feeling you have when you arrive? How confident are you that you will find it one day? How confident are you that it even exists? Is it enough to have many places that bring you Peace and lightness in your heart, even if there isn’t one that is dizzyingly Divine? Is this concept of one sacred place a short-sighted or unenlightened one altogether? Might every place feel that way to us if only our hearts and minds were in the right frequency? I imagine the most highly evolved among us feel that way wherever they go. Should that be the goal for each of us? What is your goal? Leave me a reply and let me know: Have you discovered your sacred place?

Wander blissfully,

William

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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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How Valuable Is Your TIME?

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

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

Hello friend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You are so worth it,

William

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