Tuesday, April 28, 2009


The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don't go back to sleep.

You must ask for what you really want.
Don't go back to sleep.

People are going back and forth across the doorsill
Where the two worlds touch.

The door is round and open.
Don't go back to sleep.

-- Jalaluddin Rumi.

A friend gave me a copy of this poem several years when I was on the cusp of a major change in my life. She'd seen me going back and forth; making up my mind and then trying to talk myself out of it for many months. It was a timely gift and it has hovered in the back of my mind ever since. It held great meaning for me then and, as time has gone on, it continues to, but the meaning has shifted for me a couple of times.

Originally, it reminded me not to go backwards and to awaken to new possibilities. The repeated line of "don't go back to sleep" became a kind of mantra for me during that time. Later on, when I was wrestling with an internal change, the line "you must ask for what you really want" became very important and it still reminds me of things I sometimes forget. And then, more recently, the concluding line of "the door is round and open" has moved into my consciousness as an invitation to move actively towards those things that I want in my life.

I fully realize that Rumi's poetry is primarily mystical, but interpretation is in the eye of the beholder. There are other poems of his that do touch me on a spiritual level, but this one speaks to an approach to everyday life for me. And the meaning shifts as I evolve.

It seems to be a given that this applies to any text with which we find meaningful. For those following an organized religion, I'm certain that their holy books must act this way as the individual progresses through life. Whether it be the Bible, the Torah, the Qur'an or the Gita, a person's understanding must change as he grows older and views them through the lens of different experiences. This is not limited to accepted texts, any writing that is meaningful to the individual can hold such a place in their life.

It is in the varying interpretations that problems arise, or rather in the rigidity of some interpretations. When we believe that what has meaning in our lives must be universalized to everyone else, it can only lead to conflict. All Christians hold the Bible as their sacred and most meaningful text and yet there is a plethora of differing interpretations that has resulted in who-knows-how-many different denominations. I imagine something similar must be going on in other religions that have had splits within the group.

Many adherents of the various interpretations and sects truly have considered their beliefs and the understanding of their texts. Others, however, may be just following tradition or the preaching of someone else rather than asking themselves what has meaning for them. And some must hold on to the rightness of their understandings with anger and violence toward anyone who disagrees. This is evident in the intra-religious conflicts throughout history. It is very rare for people to split from an established group without a great deal of conflict or violence from one side or the other, if not both. It is also obvious in the conflicts between totally different religions. As long as people must have the market cornered on The Truth, mutual respect is impossible. Perhaps it is just the human condition to do this, but it is ironic in the extreme and terribly sad. Many seem incapable of recognizing that most people are following whatever light has been given them and respect the effort. There is no need for absolute agreement because every person is living a different life and, therefore, has different understandings about how to do that and understand it.

It could be that I am quite odd, but I've come to accept the shifting sands of meaning and approach them with a measure of curiosity. Certainly, I go through periods of comfortably toddling along with little thought or self-examination. Inevitably, however, something new will pop-up in my awareness and require that I give it attention. It may stick with me or I may reject it, but it is unavoidable that it will come. The only consideration is what to do about it when it happens.

Thursday, April 23, 2009


There is a dichotomy in how many of us deal with change in our lives and within ourselves. On the one hand, we seem to be always looking forward to the next goal, the next stage. From the time we begin thinking in terms of what we will do or be when we grow up through all the milestones of life that we eagerly reach for from year to year, we seem to embrace the changes as a gate to arriving at what we think will be a more fulfilling place in our lives.

And yet, on another level, we cling to the security of what we know, what is comfortable, the semblance of stability. Depending on the circumstances, we waver between eagerly anticipating transitions and being fearful of them. Naturally, not all changes are pleasant or welcomed, but change in one form or another is inevitable. It is one of the few constants of our existence.

The abruptness and unexpectedness of unplanned changes in our lives accounts for at least part of the fear we have of transitions. We want to believe that we can control or stop the transitions that come to us. We want predictability in our unpredictable lives.

No less disruptive are the internal shifts that we all go through. I am generally quite surprised when something that had been little more than a vague idea hovering on the edges of my awareness takes root and establishes itself as a guiding principal in my life, altering both my understanding and my behavior. At any given moment, most of us are quite sure of what we believe, what we do not believe, what we will do and what we will never do. When these internal transitions take place it can shake up all or part of what we think we are sure of, about life and about ourselves.

These types of shifts can be quashed if a person chooses to ignore their advent. When we do this, however, we are actively rejecting an opportunity to explore ourselves more fully. Some of this may be due to fear, but I also think there is a reluctance to let go of what had been sure and certain to us. Contentment is a very comfortable place to operate from, particularly given the outside forces that bombard us constantly. And there is nothing wrong with that. Sometimes we are simply unable to take the risk.

These internal shifts often appear abrupt to those witnessing them from the outside, but they are actually very gradual, beginning in some deeply buried reaction or thought. Their emergence is slow, like a seedling pushing up through the soil. It has been germinating unseen long before we are actively aware of it. And even when it breaks through, it may be too small to see or as yet too unformed to be recognizable for what it is. Therefore, when we do recognize it fully, it is deeply set within us, despite having a feeling of shooting up from nothing. We have the option of totally uprooting it, if that is what we wish to do. But we risk leaving a hole in some essential part of ourselves that may not be able to be filled with something else.

If only we were able to live into the changes that appear. If only we could respond with curiosity rather than fear, a sense of acceptance rather than rejection, a sense of adventure rather than reluctance. I don't know that it would make major changes any easier to adapt to, but it might. Perhaps such an approach would help us glean more from the experience. Perhaps we could find a security in the changing. Perhaps it would help us to grow into more authentic versions of ourselves.

Saturday, April 18, 2009


"Make no judgments where you have no compassion." -- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Like millions of people around the world, I became aware of Susan Boyle this past week. Given that I avoid anything involving Simon Cowell or reality television shows, it was highly unlikely that I would have stumbled across the video of her singing but for the fact that four different people sent me links to it within a day and a half. All of which carried subject lines related to "You have got to see this!" And they were right.

The first time I watched it, I felt a mild horror at how both the audience and the judges were openly mocking her, laughing at her and patronizing her. This feeling changed to absolute delight when she opened her mouth to sing and put them all to shame. And over all, I shed a few happy, hopeful tears for her, for others like her, and perhaps for myself.

As the phenomenon spread, I saw and heard many comments about not judging a book by its cover or cheering for an underdog. All of which had an element of truth to them. Yet most of these same comments prefaced themselves with unflattering descriptions of her physical appearance. All of this got me thinking.

One of the things I wondered about first was why in the world these people in the theater thought they were behaving in an acceptable manner? Perhaps it was related to a mob mentality in some way. One smirk leading to another making it somehow all right to laugh out loud at her. I believe that most of these same people would never do anything like that were they to meet Ms. Boyle face-to-face, alone, in another setting. Had they crossed paths with her at the grocery store, whatever opinion they might form about her, it would never occur to most people to share it in such a brutal way.

I imagine that there were others in that audience who did not mock her, but they probably pitied the poor woman who had such naivete as to think she should be on that stage. I also feel very certain that no one sat up straight and leaned forward in their seats in anticipation of what she might do. I don't believe that I would have, had I been there. To everyone's eternal credit, they very quickly recognized their error and proceeded to cheer much louder than they had jeered.

Many of the comments that I heard and read bemoaned the fact of societal emphasis on the superficialities of appearance and age. They also suggested that Susan had put an end to all of that. To me, that was too much hyperbole for what had occurred. I have no doubt that some of the people who were there will give more thought to their responses to others, at least for a little while. But to suggest that society as a whole will be changing its attitudes based on this one pleasant lady with a beautiful voice is not realistic. These attitudes didn't embed themselves overnight and they won't be dislodged that quickly either.

There were comments from people who clearly identified with her due to their age or appearance or unrealized dreams. And I felt moved beyond words in recognizing what a large number of people marginalize themselves because society and its standards have led them to lose hope. And then by the opposite realization that society as a whole has also short changed itself by suppressing the contributions of those who do not fit the preferred standard. That suppression must be quite large since so few of us look like the airbrushed "perfection" of entertainers. And I wondered at how much we have all missed out on.

I would have liked to have seen an acknowledgment of her courage and her confidence in her own gifts in the comments I read. Long before anyone else became aware of her, she knew precisely what her age was, how she looked and that many would dismiss her because of those things. It takes a great deal of courage to put oneself out there. How much harder must it be when one is pelted with constant messages from the culture that you don't quite rate? When she sang, she became one with her voice and the song, quickly lifting everyone to a place where only the music mattered. No doubt, she has taken herself to that same place over the years and, perhaps, it is from that place that her confidence sprang.

She is a very talented woman who has bucked the odds against her and deserves the accolades that she is getting. And while I don't believe that she has turned the tide of the petty criteria that society frequently applies to people, I do believe she has given us more than just the gift of her music. It is entirely possible that someone who was very judgmental about others will think twice and reconsider before criticizing. And it may be that someone else out there, who hasn't dared to step forward and claim their own dreams, will be empowered to try to reach for them again. And in those ways, Susan Boyle has given gifts beyond that of her talent. There is no way of knowing if that will be the case, but I certainly hope it is.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Rugged individualism

Despite the fact that the United States is a relatively young country, we still have myths about ourselves and our history just like any other culture. George Washington cut down a cherry tree. Betsy Ross sewed the first flag. The Pilgrims and the Indians were great friends. And on and on. Everyone knows that the Wild West was just like a John Wayne movie. And everyone equally believes in the virtue of being a rugged individualist. Most of these myths are harmless. After all what does it matter if Washington ever lied or not. But the last one, the rugged individualist can and does cause harm to some people.

I imagine that this myth could have come about as a way to make virtue of the fact that opening up new territories required some unique skill sets in order to survive and one of those would have definitely been self-sufficiency. When there are not too many humans in the neighborhood, you had better be able to take care of yourself. But how did this evolve into some sort of universalized virtue given that it really only applies in a select set of circumstances? One has to be self-sufficient only when one is isolated, otherwise all humans are interdependent with the other people in their lives.

Throughout our lives we are dependent, to one degree or another, on those around us. And we are fooling ourselves if we believe this is not the case. As children, we are dependent on others for everything in our lives. As we mature, the amounts and types of connections we have shift to accommodate our situation and needs, but we are never totally independent. There are some souls who consider themselves loners, but even they are not as independent as they might think. This gives rise to feelings of pity in most of us for the person that isolates themselves. In extreme cases, we begin to suspect a possible mental health issue in them.

However, we have an inconsistency in our understanding of individualism versus interdependence. Certainly, we think those who withdraw to be not quite right in some way. On the other hand, some in our society also cast aspersions on some for being "too needy." Often when those so labeled are only normally needy. It is as if we are somehow afraid that another person's open need of something will require a response from us. I think that this carries through to the contempt that some people show to anyone who is down on their luck or buried in a mess. More often than not, someone will blame the person who is unemployed for his unemployment whether or not they know if it was avoidable. If someone's finances have taken a hit, it must be their own fault, rather than the economy, our society, an illness or who-knows-what else.

I think that it is quite likely that this is spurred by personal fear. If someone openly acknowledges their own vulnerability, it makes us frightened of our own vulnerabilities. If I can blame your catastrophe on you, then I can feel a bit more secure that it won't happen to me. This is because I can be certain that I would choose differently than you and am thus safe from a similar catastrophe. It isn't a reasonable assumption to make in many cases, but we cling to it nonetheless.

The cold hard fact of the matter is that none of us can make it on our own. More than any other time in history, we are dependent on strangers for our daily needs. Since the industrial revolution, we have become less and less independently viable. Our food comes from who-knows-where. Our businesses are so interconnected that the failure of one component could lead to disruptions in the life of someone on the other side of the planet. And if we believe that we should make it all on our own, we are surely courting disaster. It is truly the case that if we wish to make it through whatever life hurls at us, we must support and be connected to others. For in doing that, we are not only helping them, we are helping ourselves.

Monday, April 6, 2009

In the dark

"Character is what you are in the dark." -- Anonymous.

I've tried in vain to discover who first said this, but whoever it was showed keen insight. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to apply to a wide variety of situations.

During the day, many of us put on a mask that reflects the expectations of others. We hide elements of our thoughts, motivations, desires and emotions in an attempt to present an acceptable face in our jobs and our relationships. And in this hiding we are, to some extent, denying essential parts of ourselves. This is precisely what society expects from us and we comply. In fact, it rarely occurs to us not to fulfill these expectations.

In our jobs, we are expected to present an appearance of having virtually no personal lives and to strictly limit our expressions of feelings and opinions. This makes business go more smoothly, perhaps. But what does it do to the individual who must suppress parts of themselves?

In our relationships, the amount of masking we do is dependent on the nature of the relationship. With our more casual friendships, we disguise ourselves in much the same way as we do in our work life, to the end that we reveal very little of our true nature. We are pleasant to most everyone despite any unpleasantness that may be going on just beneath the surface. We also hide our joys and dreams, not revealing ourselves.

Within families, we hide how we feel from each other and, frequently, we hide what goes on in the family from the outside world. We never admit to having an aunt who drinks, or a father who is abusive or an uncle that the kids have to avoid. We hide the hurt another family member's words give us. And the place that should be our haven becomes another place of deception. With our children, we hide our fears and vulnerabilities, our humanity. With our mates, we will swallow disagreement until it chokes us to avoid conflict. In all of these cases, there are times when it is more prudent to keep quiet about a given situation.

I wonder, however, what it costs us as individuals if we feel we must frequently hide or even deny essential parts of ourselves. How long until who we really are disappears under a giant mound of expectations?

We can't ever suppress ourselves permanently. No matter how much we bow down to the god Conformity, late at night, when sleep eludes us, we inevitably meet our true selves and can no longer deny who or what we are. Every fear in our lives comes clamoring for attention and we can no longer deny the fears. Every hope that seems impractical or imprudent, whispers that we should try. Every desire we believe we shouldn't have stirs up anew with longing. And the specter of who we appear to be crashes into who we truly are and the winner of that battle will determine how we live through the next day.

Most of us will automatically don our acceptable masks again in the morning. But what have we done to ourselves when we do? What happens to the self we've denied?

Sunday, April 5, 2009


After my recent disastrous haircut, I've found myself noticing things about hair or the lack thereof. Hair can be used as a statement, a reflection of self-image, or a passing fad. It can be a source of derision or a source of sensual pleasure. Maybe all of the above at various times.

I've never used a hair style to make a statement, unless I'm making a statement by not making a statement. And when I see people using their hair that way, I generally find it mildly amusing. Never having been inclined to dye my hair green or pink, I can only imagine what sort of statement is intended there. Perhaps that they are unique? But how unique is it when so many people are doing it together? There is also most likely a "hey, look at me" element to it as well. My favorite instance of this occurred when I saw a young man on the train with a tall, rainbow-colored mohawk. He got angry at the glances he was getting and yelled, "What are you looking at?" I thought then that styling one's hair like a prismatic rooster's comb was a funny way to avoid notice.

The fads come and go with regularity. When I was very young, it seemed as if all the women were trying to copy Jackie Kennedy's hairdo, massive amounts of hairspray included. Then, as I got older, the hair icons shifted from Farah Fawcett to Dorothy Hamill to Princess Diana to Jennifer Aniston. I don't know how much this was due to imitation as flattery and how much to following a trend. Or maybe it was something else. I managed to avoid the most popular trends, not so much by design, but because I went through long periods of time when I didn't cut my hair at all.

Haircuts seem to be used to reflect an image of ourselves, especially as regards our employment. For "serious" occupations or in situations when we wish to be taken seriously, short hair seems to be an unspoken requirement for both sexes. Of all the attorneys I've worked with none of them have had interesting or nonstandard haircuts. Well, there was one guy going with a Ben Franklin look, but he had the professional chops to get away with it. Women have a bit more latitude simply because they can put long hair up so that it appears controlled and, therefore, more serious.

Those with less expectations in their work have more freedom to choose hairstyles, but I've noticed that most tend toward the practical side as well. Of course, artists and other creative sorts can get away with trying absolutely anything in hairstyles and usually do. I think that falls into both the self-image and statement making categories.

The lack of hair can also fall into several of the categories as well. Some young men with full heads of hair make a statement by shaving their heads. Having grown up in a family where most of the men went prematurely bald, I never gave baldness much thought. But, in thinking back on it, there must have been some teasing going on because the men generally beat people to the punch with self-deprecating jokes on themselves. On the one hand, I think this may have lessened over time. On the other hand, there are lots of commercials selling hair replacement treatments, so I might just be out of that loop these days. Currently, the most derision is heaped on the dreaded comb-over and bad toupees. Perhaps because they tend to convey a bit of desperation in their adherents.

The most overlooked aspect of hair is the sensual. Females may notice it more than males, or perhaps the men just notice it differently. I first noticed it back when I was too young to know what the word sensual even meant. Way back then, we were still being taught that you had to brush your hair 100 strokes a day. This was supposed to make it healthy. It started out with our mothers brushing our hair. Then, later on, all of the little long-haired girls would take turns brushing each others' hair, just because it felt so good. The rhythmic strokes of the brush and the wonderful sensations on one's scalp were hypnotic and mildly addictive. Some girls even used their recess time brushing and brushing each others' hair. The practice disappeared as we got older, although I experienced a brief flashback to it a few years back on a weekend away with some friends. The guys with us had no idea what they'd been missing out on.

Most of the time, these sensations only arise during grooming at the hands of another, like getting a shampoo at a salon. It seems to be a bit like not being able to tickle yourself, someone else must do it. There is potential for it to expand, particularly in relationships. Touching someone's hair is an extremely intimate act. As adults, we may at times touch a child's hair to straighten it or pat them on the head. But there are only a very limited number of cases where it is permissible between adults. Most likely this is because we are unknowingly acknowledging its intimacy and sensuality. So, for those in relationships, take full advantage of the possibilities at hand. As for the rest of us, I think it is past time for an old-fashioned slumber party. I'll bring my brush.