Oh hello friends! I’m a reader. A slow reader. A let-me-digest-this type reader. And also a distracted-by-all-the-cheeses-I-could-be-tasting type reader. So besides my Mastering Cheese textbook, 2021 had seven books for me that I’m going to be raving about to everyone I talk to anyway, so you may as well just see the list now.
I hope you pick up one or two in 2022 and find your mind opened and your heart moved and your energy sparked.
See No Stranger A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love by Valarie Kaur
3 words this made me feel:Human, Love, Connected
1 thing this inspired me to do: Listen and learn about way more people.
A surprising thing I learned: The hatred and violence against Sikh communities in the wake of 9/11, and how radically loving their responses were.
Why I think you should (there are no shoulds, but still) read it: Honestly, this one is just going to make you a better person. A more connected human. I don’t know what else to say.
Reading difficulty 1-10: Not. It’s easy to get lost in, hard to put down.
A favorite excerpt (how do I even choose?!?) to whet your appetite:“You are a part of me I do not yet know. . . . Wonder is where love begins, but the failure to wonder is the beginning of violence. Once people stop wondering about others, once they no longer see others as part of them, they disable their instinct for empathy. And once they lose empathy, they can do anything to them, or allow anything to be done to them.”
To Shake the Sleeping Self A Journey from Oregon to Patagonia, and a Quest for a Life with No Regret by Jedidiah Jenkins
3 words this made me feel:Adventure, Free, Brave
1 thing this inspired me to do: Spontaneously take a winter hiking and meditation trip to the snowy, icy Minnesota north shore. Oh and revive my old pastime of spending hours and hours browsing Google maps.
A surprising thing I learned: Even though North America and South America are connected by land, you have to travel by water or air between Panama and Colombia because there’s a roadless jungle called the Darien gap that is known as a “smuggling corridor” and is considered one of the world’s most dangerous places.
Why I think you should (there are no shoulds, but still) read it: It challenges everything you’ve settled into. It pulls messy honesty out of you. It makes you dream again.
Reading difficulty 1-10: Another nail-biter. Honestly this reads more like an epic movie in IMAX. Difficulty negative ten.
A favorite excerpt (how do I even choose?!?) to whet your appetite:“As thirty approached, and ‘youth’ was passing into ‘adulthood,’ the terrible reality of time hit me like a wet rag. I looked back on my twenties and realized that every time there was a crossroads, I took the first and safest path. I did just what was expected of me, or what I needed to do to escape pain or confusion. I was reactive. I didn’t feel like an autonomous soul. I felt like a pinball.”
Mating in Captivity Unlocking Erotic Intelligence by Esther Perel
3 words this made me feel:Understood, Excited, Inchargeofmyself
1 thing this inspired me to do: Communicate more.
A surprising thing I learned: Just how codependent and enmeshed American love relationships tend to be, and just how unsustainable and unfulfilling romance is when its core is a pursuit of absolute security.
Why I think you should (there are no shoulds, but still) read it: For almost all of us, sex and eroticism is a core part of us and so worth exploring and learning and getting help with. But it’s also not supposed to be talked about, so that getting help and exploring thing doesn’t always happen. This book is a life-changing, sigh-of-relief-giving, absolutely amazing place to start your own conversation about it.
Reading difficulty 1-10: Esther Perel is a story-teller who thinks and speaks and guides in stories. And through each story she somehow introduces you to your truer self. It’s not difficult, it’s completely engrossing.
A favorite excerpt (how do I even choose?!?) to whet your appetite:“Fear–of judgment, of rejection, of loss–is embedded in romantic love. Sexual rejection at the hands of the one we love is particularly hurtful. We are therefore less inclined to be erotically adventurous with the person we depend on for so much and whose opinion is paramount. We’d rather edit ourselves, maintaining a tightly negotiated, acceptable, even boring erotic script, than risk injury. It is no surprise that some of us can freely engage in the perils and adventures of sex only when the emotional stakes are lower–when we love less or, more important, when we are less afraid to lose love.”
Stamped from the Beginning The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi
3 words this made me feel:Disgust, Determination, Love
1 thing this inspired me to do: Make a habit, every time I hear someone (including myself) place responsibility on BIPOC and other minorities to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” of redirecting the responsibility first and foremost onto the ones who are doing the oppressing or enjoying giant advantages from the oppression. In other words, while a Black person may choose to fight for themselves, a white person is fully responsible for making the world a safer and fairer and more equitable place for Black people and other minorities–and that is not done by ignoring away our head start and enthusiastically cheering them on to fix it all themselves.
A surprising thing I learned: While it was a huge and needed step forward, the passing of the Civil Rights Act also made way for a new version of racist argument in America: Since opportunity was now supposedly, officially “equal,” we could now just blame the Black population for ongoing disparities, instead of grappling honestly with the hundreds-of-years head start white Americans and their families had and the reality of ongoing racism.
Why I think you should (there are no shoulds, but still) read it: It is such a powerful eye-opener and motivator. It is incredibly informative and it’s a deep motivator for making the world a better place.
Reading difficulty 1-10: Honestly, this one’s challenging. I’d say it’s a 10 in difficulty, because it’s just got so much gross, depressing, nauseating truth for America to face. Which also means it’s a 10 for needing to be read by you and me.
A favorite excerpt (how do I even choose?!?) to whet your appetite:“Time and again, racist ideas have not been cooked up from the boiling pot of ignorance and hate. Time and again, powerful and brilliant men and women have produced racist ideas in order to justify the racist policies of their era, in order to redirect the blame for their era’s racial disparities away from those policies and onto Black people.”
Play How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul by Stuart Brown
3 words this made me feel:Childlike, Happy, Relief
1 thing this inspired me to do: Make opportunities to laugh more. And sometimes swim laps less like a human and more like a dolphin frog. Or a frog dolphin. A frolphin.
A surprising thing I learned: Humans have a real developmental for “secret spaces” where we can be totally and safely alone, free, and uncensored.
Why I think you should (there are no shoulds, but still) read it: Because you’re too busy right now, and it’s making you sad.
Reading difficulty 1-10: 1 if you read it, 10 if you don’t.
A favorite excerpt (how do I even choose?!?) to whet your appetite:“Once she realized that she would need time for her heart play and started acting on that realization, she began to experience true play again. She began to feel an excitement with life that she had forgotten. . . . Setting out to remember those feelings can be dangerous. It can seriously upend your life. If [her] marriage wasn’t as strong as it was, her husband might have felt she was pulling away when she went on long hikes by herself . . .”
The Body Keeps the Score Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk
3 words this made me feel:Hopeful, Understood, Likeiactuallyhaveabody
1 thing this inspired me to do: Yoga, swim. “Think through” less, hug myself more.
A surprising thing I learned: Retelling trauma in talk therapy can actually continually retraumatize. Sometimes saying what happened isn’t what it takes to make your body trust that it’s safe again.
Why I think you should (there are no shoulds, but still) read it: Because if you’re somehow one of the people who won’t find yourself deeply in these pages, you love someone who does, and this will help you get it. And whether for you or your people, there are so. many. practical. options. So good.
Reading difficulty 1-10: There’s science stuff, but it’s worth it.
A favorite excerpt (how do I even choose?!?) to whet your appetite:“Trauma victims cannot recover until they become familiar with and befriend the sensations in their bodies. Being frightened means that you live in a body that is always on guard. Angry people live in angry bodies. The bodies of child-abuse victims are tense and defensive until they find a way to relax and feel safe.”
P.S. Bonus fact, when you get to the part where Bessel van der Kolk remembers the feeling of being a “little boy” with “stern, Calvinistic parents” . . . . . . same, friend, same. . .
Deep Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves by James Nestor
3 words this made me feel:Amazed, Excited, Powerful
1 thing this inspired me to do: Learn free-diving.
A surprising thing I learned: The deeper you go underwater, the more blood flows away from your limbs toward vital organs to keep them functioning longer. Peripheral vasoconstriction. “When a diver descends to three hundred feet–a depth frequently reached by modern freedivers–“ and I’m having to just quote this verbatim because I mostly skipped science, thank you home school, “vessels in the lungs engorge with blood, preventing them from collapse.”
Why I think you should (there are no shoulds, but still) read it: Honestly, this sounds like a niche book for a niche audience, but I 100% swear you’ll enjoy it. Also, do you like sharks?
Reading difficulty 1-10: Less than 1.
A favorite excerpt (how do I even choose?!?) to whet your appetite:“The ocean is usually silent, but the waters here were thundering with an incessant click-click-click, as if a thousand stove lighters were being triggered over and over again. Schnöller figured the noise must be coming from some mechanism on the ship. He swam farther away from the boat, but the clicking only got louder. He’d never heard a sound like this before and had no idea where it was coming from. Then he looked down. A pod of whales, their bodies oriented vertically, like obelisks, surrounded him on all sides and stared up with wide eyes. They swam toward the surface, clicking louder and louder as they approached. They gathered around Schnöller and rubbed against him, face to face. Schnöller could feel the clicks penetrating his flesh and vibrating through his bones, his chest cavity.”
Want to borrow one?
Sneak peek of what’s next . . .
Maybe all this reading results in a few helpful thoughts from my fingertips this year. Want to hear them?
Hello again friends, happy new year to you! Have you made any resolutions this year? Maybe set some 2022 goals?
And not because I think resolutions are bad. I don’t think they’re bad, I don’t think I’m better than you for not falling for them, and I bet I’ll make some again one day.
But not this year.
I think it’s because I’m in a very specific season of learning–can I share it with you?
I subtly shifted toward the window so my next-seat-neighbor couldn’t see my face on the flight home from Indiana. I didn’t want them to see the tears rolling down my cheeks every few pages as I read the little book Siddhartha. And they looked young, so I also wanted to hide the more adult pages, where Siddhartha’s lover teaches him “the game of love . . . one of the thirty or forty different games [she] knew,” like the one “which the textbooks call ‘climbing a tree.'” So yes, colorful book all around.
Exactly 100 years ago, a German-Swiss poet and painter authored the book Siddhartha. A story about a student of the Buddha. And not just a student of the Buddha, a student of life. Of business, of romance, of philosophy, of pleasure, of high society, of travel and exploration. In fact, Siddhartha’s study with the Buddha didn’t last that long. Can you imagine? Sitting and listening to the Buddha and eventually saying, “sorry, I love what you’re saying, it’s just lacking a little something for me.”
Siddhartha wanted life to make sense. He wanted to understand, to get it, to have meaning, to feel purpose–to be fulfilled as a human.
So he searched.
He tried living with the Buddha. He took what worked for him and moved along to find more. He apprenticed with Kamaswami, a wealthy business owner, and became a massively successful financier. It wasn’t quite right. He traveled, explored, adventured. Still, there must be more. He met a woman named Kamala who opened him up to a world of passion, sex, romance. Even this wasn’t enough.
How many new strategies, practices, schedules, goals, and habits have you tried over the years, so that life can feel . . . right?
And how tired are you?
And again I’m wondering–which new way are you trying this year?
“It’s sort of a blessing–a gift–that life is so short.” My friend introduced this counterintuitive concept to me sitting in a coffee shop–the same coffee shop he keeps returning to for connection as year after year of life journals itself along.
I had just shared with him a roller coaster overview of some personal searching the last few years has held for me. A family wedding where I paid a visit to my old trauma stomping grounds. The cracks started forming, pressure building. Then a hike in the Rockies with a hat on–I never wear hats, so I’m not used to the brim blocking my peripheral of what’s above–lunging upward over a rock into a giant, unforgiving tree branch. A crack, blackness, stars, awake again, on the ground now, “F***!!!”, annoyed glances from parents of small children, looking around in a daze, one shoulder a little lower than the other, whiplash, dizzy, fuzzy, head throbbing. A concussion that just got nastier as the days passed. Powerfully knocking all the anxiety loose. The cracks widening, the dam bursting. Everything I’d internalized that had kept me “safe” in my quarter century on this planet suddenly falling apart. Therapy, more therapy, lots of therapy. Journaling. Denying. Realizing. Seething. Accepting. More therapy. Hoping to figure it all out and end up “all better” someday.
“Because we don’t have time to work on everything.”
My friend explained: “We feel this pressure to measure up, to be good enough, to make it all the way to our ideal version of acceptable or of healthy or of right or of whatever other way we think we’re supposed to be. Some arbitrary bar that we set for ourselves, or that was set for us. We keep trying and working and struggling to measure up. But eventually it becomes clear that life is too short–that there’s way more stuff than we’ll be able to work through–and that maybe we don’t have to figure it all out. Maybe we can’t. Maybe we’re not supposed to.”
What are you determined to figure all the way out this year? To beat this year? Achieve this year? Discover this year? Perfect this year?
And if you don’t reach that bar . . . is that okay? Are you enough? Is your now-life worth it anyway?
Do you watch The Office?
(It’s funny when a TV show becomes so legendary that it’s no longer “have you watched,“ but “do you watch?”)
If you’re an Office person, I know for sure three times you cried about it. Jim and Pam at Niagara, Michael saying goodbye at the airport, and the entire Finale episode.
In the Finale, goofy old Andy Bernard says something just outrageously profound that sums up the point of the whole show–a show full of different characters casting about in countless directions for meaning and growth and purpose and fulfillment. “I wish there was a way to know you were in the good old days before you actually left them.”
When Siddhartha embarked on his journey of self discovery, he was ferried across a river by an old man. After a long life of searching, Siddhartha again comes to the river, and finds the same old man–still radiating the same peace Siddhartha had seen in his eyes years before. Vasudeva, the ferryman, leads a simple life transporting travelers back and forth across the river. Having tried every different way in life, still feeling like he’s missing the point, Siddhartha decides to stay with Vasudeva–learn from him, see if he can find the peace and contentment the old man has found.
Vasudeva doesn’t have grand philosophies, programs, pleasures, practices, or opinions to share. Instead, he encourages Siddhartha to learn from the river.
As the years roll by, Siddhartha watches the river. The river just . . . flows. It keeps going. And going. And going. It is strong and soft. Steady and inevitable. The river doesn’t fight, and it can’t be fought. The water is carried to the ocean and brought back again by rain, birth and death without beginning or end. And without struggle, the river lives on–its various ripples and currents and waves and droplets all as one. One continuing, flowing one.
There is no perfecting the river. No molding its waves into the right shape. No struggle that will stop its currents.
The river flows.
The flow of life.
With all its bad and good, it’s happiness and sadness, it’s living and dying.
Life flows on.
And while one can learn peace and joy and beauty and love during life, one cannot master it, stop it, fix it, win it, or beat it.
One just . . . lives.
Nails on a chalkboard. I did not like what she was saying.
I’m a next level Scheduling guru. I can fit every different goal and passion and habit and session into a 7-day-excel-spreadsheet (color coded, too, because life is an adventure).
And then life’s currents do their thing and I have to rewrite the schedule. Every few days.
Over dinner, I was complaining to Lyssi that I just couldn’t figure out a realistic way to fit everything I want dependably into my day or my week. Running, yoga, meditation, breathwork, exercises, swimming, cooking, massage, reading, podcasts, languages, piano, movies, friends, journaling, reading some more, brushing my teeth. And on top of it all, actually writing for my blog again.
“I have a sort of strange idea,” she said. “What if you just didn’t follow a schedule at all? What if you just did what you wanted to do, when you wanted to do it? Just listening to your body and your heart? Like when you wake up in the morning, maybe it’s a reading day, maybe it’s a movement day, maybe it lasts five minutes or an hour, or maybe you just stay in bed?”
Um. No. That is . . . the worst. It will not work.
“I’m just worried that if I don’t schedule it, the stuff I really need and want that isn’t comfortable is what will slide. Like movement and exercise. I’m afraid I’ll always just go with what’s easy.”
As much as I hated the idea and knew there was no way it would work, I also tasted this little flavor of relief, and had to go back for more. So I threw out the planning, and just lived what life brought me.
It has turned out looking like a lot more movement and exercise–especially yoga and swimming, almost every day. I haven’t read any less, maybe more. I have grown more in touch with my body, its pain and its insecurity and also its freedom and its strength. The only thing I feel like I’ve lost is a sense of failure at not measuring up every day to the Peter I kept planning and re-planning to be.
“In this hour, Siddhartha stopped fighting his fate, stopped suffering. On his face flourished the cheerfulness of a knowledge, which is no longer opposed by any will, which knows perfection, which is in agreement with the flow of events, with the current of life, full of sympathy for the pain of others, full of sympathy for the pleasure of others, devoted to flow, belonging to the oneness.”
So what was your New Year’s resolution? And how are you measuring up? And will it be enough?
I feel like six months from now I’ll probably be writing something about how valuable schedules and habits and consistency are, and I don’t think it will be wrong. Schedules are wonderful. Planning is important. Repeated practice adds up to a lot of strength and joy and beauty and adventure and love.
Which is why I’ll probably set New Year’s goals or intentions again someday. But this year I’m learning to lay down that bar I’ve been desperately seeking to measure up to, year after year, struggle after struggle, interruption after interruption, disappointment after disappointment.
Which season are you in? Are you trying yet another strategy this year? And here’s a more helpful question: Are you tired about it?
Then maybe it’s time to give yourself over to life. To trust it. It will flow. It will bring love and pain and excitement and sadness and hugs and loneliness and movement and boredom and the whole time it will be beautiful and it will be yours and it will be right.
Sure, chase the adventure and meaning you want in life. That’s part of it and it’s worth scheduling and pushing now and then.
And also, you’re already living. It’s life. It’s weird. It’s exciting. It’s confusing. It’s beautiful. It’s allowed. And it’s enough.
As Siddhartha nears the end of his life, he speaks again to his childhood friend and fellow seeker, Govinda: “What should I possibly have to tell you[?] . . . Perhaps that in all that searching, you don’t find the time for finding?”
Can you let go of the Shoulds for a while? Can you just live? You may find that it’s enough. That you’re already enough. That you’re already there.
P.S. What’s funny is that after giving up completely on schedules and goals and Shoulds this new year, I’ve stumbled upon a clearer intention for this season of my life than I think I’ve ever felt. It’s a simple one and it’s helping. Ask me about it over coffee sometime. I’d love to share it.
Maybe I will write another tomorrow. Or maybe I will sleep in. If I write, would you like me to write for you?
It’s like seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time. You look over the edge, and it goes . . . down . . . and down . . . and it just keeps going. You try to follow it across to the other side, and there is just too much. It’s . . . indescribably BIG.
I always thought I was a good writer. I even put “written communication” on my resume. Lately I’ve looked back at hastily typed work emails and notice a missing “s” here and a confusing sentence there. Maybe the concussion got to me. Or maybe my writing has just never been impeccable. Maybe I’m human, which is obnoxious.
Actually, I’ve noticed it in some good books lately, too. It seems like in each one–talking bestsellers–there are at least one or two sentences where I go “ooooh they missed that one!”
So what’s abundantly clear is that being “good writers” or “good communicators” has little to do with ridding ourselves of flaws.
After all, if I picked apart your grammar, you’d probably stop listening to me. I know I would.
So what makes good writing? Or effective communicating?
Do you know how long 4500 words is? Google tells me a typical nonfiction book runs 50,000-75,000. On February 28 last year I sat down at my laptop and started typing. The words flowed–after all, abuse is a topic that can flow like Niagara Falls. In about 3 hours I wrote 4500 words. Which means that, in theory, if I wrote a book (at least one that I felt as passionate about), I could knock it out in 40 hours. (Doubt it.)
I’m not saying I’m a great writer. I’m saying I’ve had great writing days.
In April, Willoughby died.
I could sense it coming, so in the weeks leading up, the writing slowed down. The flow dried up. Then it happened, and like a mother-******* trooper, I lied to myself and wrote another blog post . . . this one was about how brains work, and it wasn’t a bad post (!!!), but it was not real for me that weekend. I didn’t mean it. It didn’t matter.
Then I stopped. My 5-posts-a-month goal kept going “hey, I’m still here,” but I had nothing to offer for it. Nothing honest.
I finally did write one more, about Willoughby. This one I did mean. All the way. And then I stopped again.
I guess what I’m saying is that being good at something or passionate about something or committed to something is actually a fairly complicated concept. Not concept, journey. Maybe because you and I are complicated.
Last Saturday someone asked me if I am an all-or-nothing type person. Like, do I have to either do something all-the-way to-the-max or not at all?
Yes. Yes, definitely yes. Yes. Yes. Yes, that is me. Yes.
Which I think makes me a bad writer, in a sense, because sometimes it makes me not-a-writer.
And the question was a good reminder that we’re allowed to be imperfect at stuff.
Neil Gaiman, I think in a Tim Ferriss podcast episode, made the fascinating point for writers that the only thing that can’t be fixed is a blank page.
Life has a way, sometimes, of just throwing you to the ground and beating the shit out of you.
Strangely, those experiences tend to be what make us “good” communicators. Or shut us up completely.
In the last few months, I keep sitting down to write. I keep finding myself at Starbucks, clicking around on WordPress and pretending to customize my site for a while and then finally clicking “Add new post” a bunch of times, and then clicking more “Backspace” than anything else, and then going home with nothing to show.
And it’s not because there’s nothing to say.
It’s because there’s too much.
Like the Grand Canyon.
When I was maybe 16 I walked up to its edge the first time and to this day I still can’t find the words. Indescribable immensity. Too much. Too big. Unfathomable. Uncontainable.
And that’s a bit how I feel these days. It’s not that there’s not much to say in life, it’s that “5-ways-to” lists and little motivation-shots just aren’t cutting it because there’s too. damn. much.
But. (Deep breath.) There’s always going to be too much and I’d be in a world of trouble if you and all the other people got so overwhelmed that you, also, shut your mouths and stopped showing up.
What to say about 2020. Which, can we keep calling 2021 2020? May as well. How about this: What. The. Hell. There’s too much. There’s too much. Turns out there’s always been too much. And where to start!?
There’s this amazing moment in Peacock’s new sitcom Rutherford Falls. The guy who’s always been in charge, on top, big-headed, gets sort of thrown to the ground by life in general, and he calls his friend: “There’s something I have to tell you. . . . I don’t get it.” “You don’t get what?” “It. You know . . . all of it. Any of it. Anything. I don’t get it. I thought I got it, for so long in my life, I thought I was one of the people who get it and . . . I don’t get it.”
And that has become my life’s motto.
I’d love to say I know what we “should” do with all the absolute garbage of the last year and a half or, apparently, several millennia. (Also, don’t get me wrong, they’ve been astoundingly good, too. Just, also so much bad.) I’d love to say I know the solutions for humanity, that people should listen to and trust me to be one of the “adults” (haha) in the room, but turns out . . . . . . I don’t get it.
In fact, the more I learn, the more I realize how little I really comprehend.
And all those The-5-secret-ways-to-absolutely-for-sure-get-what-you-want don’t feel true anymore. “I used to get it. But now I don’t.” Now I’m just trying to not do too much damage and trying to shine a little light in a corner and maybe get some on a few other people.
The big question for me now is turning out to be: Am I allowed to keep writing even though I don’t get it? Even though I’m an all-or-nothing person who just gave the f*** up and laid on the couch after my best buddy died? Even though every time I sit down to write, the only words that flow are vague, cynical rantings?
Last February I felt thiiiis passionate about something, and the 4500 words just effortlessly happened, like they were trying to break free. Now, I feel THIIIIIIIIIIIIIS passionate about EVERYTHING (and almost as confused), and I find that it’s all TOO much. Too big. I can’t do it justice. Starbucks will close in a few hours and by then you will have lost interest in my bitter ramblings. So. . . . what to do. . . .
I’d like to stop writing. I’d like to stop sharing. I’d like to stop pretending like I’m someone people should listen to, someone people could learn from, someone with something to offer. I’d like to admit that life won and I lost and that’s because I’m a loser. I’d like to not let anyone see me anymore. To disappear from social media, for sure, because it is basically lies. To never pipe up when people are talking about big life stuff, because “for so long in my life, I thought I was one of the people who get it and . . . I don’t get it,” and that feels embarrassing and so frustrating and pretty imposter-y.
Viktor Frankl wrote a book titled Man’s Search for Meaning. Which is a pretty intimidating title to write for. But he did it, and it has sold over 16 million copies. And do you know what happened to Viktor Frankl before he wrote it? He was imprisoned and abused in Nazi death camps where he barely survived and watched friend after friend die. Yeah. Not that losing Willoughby isn’t sad, but it’s sort of in a different category.
Siddhartha Gautama was a little luckier–at least to begin with. He was a rich kid, but apparently one with a tender heart. From his easy lifestyle, he looked out at a world full of people struggling and suffering and he decided to jump in the deep end, join the struggle, and learn what he could to help people. Instead of letting the world of suffering shut him down, turning away from the yuck, he opened his heart wide around it and met people in the real, icky, confusing world. And now they call him The Buddha. He showed up.
A psychologist friend, one of the most influential people in my life, has helped hundreds of people–couples, especially–with absolutely life-changing communication and relational concepts. He’s given me so much. He has a PhD in counseling psychology which probably means he’s one of the people who gets it. Right? But if you attend one of his seminars and listen to him tell his story, you’ll find that it’s a story of being completely lost and alone and confused as a child in a world that loudly told him he didn’t fit. The easy way for him would have been to disappear. To say “life beat me” and move on. Stop showing up. Certainly not help hundreds of people with their own struggles. But he didn’t. He helps people, even though vulnerably showing up for the world can be so tough. He said something that sticks with me: “People connect at the level of their struggles.”
I’m not going to have a world religion based around me. I’ll be plenty pumped if I just get to publish one book eventually–that would be cool. So not looking to be as influential as the Buddha, but I see three options in my future.
First I’m going to say what is not an option: Going back to the simple, “I’ve-got-this-all-figured-out” worldview. The one with easy answers and lots of judgments. I can’t go back because . . . I’ve seen too much of life. Maybe you have, too. We’re living through a worldwide pandemic after all. Among other things. When the evils of slavery were exposed for Great Britain to see, William Wilberforce said, “You may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know.” In his depressing (but fair) (and also not totally depressing) book Escape from Freedom, the psychologist Erich Fromm describes the process by which our minds, indoctrinated into a simple worldview handed to us in our youths, eventually find freedom. We see too much. We see the world for what it is. Not simple. Not black-and-white. Not all sunshine and rainbows. And this freedom from our simplistic rose-colored outlook on life is so terrifying that we then try to escape. Frequently, we even try to go back. Back to our cult, back to our abusers, back to our lifestyles, back to our old friends. But we can never truly go back. We know too much now.
What do you know “too much” about after this last year?
My friend–a nurse–has watched first-hand as precious human after precious human dies, while all he can do is be there with them as a virus does its nasty business. A virus that we’re doing lots of fighting over and writing parody songs about and trying to ignore. He’s seen too much. He can never go back to who he was before this year.
A lot of us (like me) grew up in conservative homes that proudly claimed racism was a thing of the past and did a whole lot of sweeping ugly stories and statistics under the rug. Many of us have learned in the last year just how awful and just how recent and just how ongoing racism and its brutal impacts are in America. And oh man how nice it would be to go back to being blissfully ignorant. “Not my problem” if it’s not really there. But the thing is, we’ve learned just how much yes, it is a problem and it’s our problem and we can’t just wipe it off and go back about life.
On the phone the other day, a dear friend asked me how I’ve been, and my answer went something like this: “Have you ever felt like you’re actually really grateful for all the abuse and hurt and struggle you went through when you were young, because it gave you so much perspective and compassion and now you can help people? Like you wouldn’t take any of it back, because it’s made you who you are?” “Yes!” “Okay, well that’s how I’ve always felt. But not anymore. There’s nothing romantic about it anymore. There’s nothing silver-liningy about it. Life after trauma just absolutely 100% sucks. If I could take it all back and grow up in a healthy family and a functional environment, I absolutely would, because then maybe I could go a day without struggling with the most basic life stuff because of trauma’s effects, and I’m so damn tired of it.”
What’s your wish-you-could-take-it-back thing? What have you tried hard not to face, not to come to terms with? Or to be too silver-liningy about? What life stuff have you tried to Denial away?
Maybe one day I’ll write down my whole story–or maybe I’ll get you to say yours? But for today I’ll just say: My childhood sucked. It was awful. It was just brutal. Awful awful awful. I’ve got the literal scars to prove it. And then I escaped. I moved up to Minnesota to spend life in a safe place with my best friend. She refused (but nicely) to marry me until I got therapy. So I got happy. I tricked her into thinking I was all better and we got married. I delivered a speech a number of times called “Life is beautiful,” and I still think it was a good speech, but it was also a 22-year-old-Peter speech, and 22-year-old-Peter had decided that life was about finding happiness and that anybody could and you just had to choose where to look. He recognized, for sure, that life is scary. In fact, he talked about feeling such darkness that sometimes suicide felt like the right option. So what “saved” him? Discovering that, no matter how bad it all got, how scary, how hurtful–that if you glance to the side you’ll find something beautiful. “It’s the little things.” It’s all the experiences, all the adventure. And that beauty is worth holding onto. . . . which seems like a privileged take on life when I imagine Viktor Frankl watching his friends die in Nazi death camps. But it worked at the time–I happy’d myself out of the darkness and found the meaning of life: Just be happy. (“Just” makes it sound easy, right?) So that became my motto. My identity, really. If someone asked me about me the first word that came out was “happy” and it came out in a 72-point Comic Sans font with exclamation points.
I decided that life couldn’t be about all the struggle, because I couldn’t handle that.
And then the next 8 years soundly showed me that you can’t happy away the struggle. Life is still life, no matter the blinders you try to put up, and once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it.
So after this year and a half of crisis (which, by the way–our bodies are only meant to handle crises like getting chased for a minute by something with a loud roar but shitty stamina. 18 months is too damn long), you and I are probably tempted to do a lot of denial, to put blinders back up, to “go back to normal,” to pretend like we’re okay, to “choose happiness.” And then we may be discovering that we sort of can’t unsee. Life’s just doesn’t look the same after local curfews and ubiquitous military humvees have lost their novelty, and after watching in horror as the “patriotic ones” literally stormed the Capitol. And we can’t even really have a mask-burning party because turns out we’re still going to need them for a while and there’s enough smoke in the air already from the wildfires, which is also losing its novelty, as if we needed more stuff.
So that’s what I can’t do. I can’t just play Legos. I can’t just read novels. I can’t just make jokes. Those are all still good, and I may or may not have a 2379-picture album in my Galaxy gallery to prove that jokes still mean a lot to me. But I can’t just. I also can’t just write simple self-help about 5-ways-to-be-successful-at-a-job-that-you-very-well-may-not-have-if-you-had-been-born-a-different-socioeconomic-status-or-skin-color. And I can’t just post on Instagram about how happy I always am, because “always” is a lie. I can’t do the positivity thing. (Which is not the same as saying I can’t shine some real light or sometimes be positive.) I can’t write cookie-cutter blog posts with cute hooks and cute analogies and cute calls to action. And I can’t do small-talk (but I never really could).
Everything I ever write or say will be in the context of the 18 years of abuse I experienced in an unhealthy home and then the awful saga of two concussions that changed my life and then learning all about anxiety and then living through a worldwide pandemic and then staying up till 3am watching live-feeds of the Twin Cities burning and brave troops trying to protect while brave protestors also tried to protect and then finally experiencing what everyone kept talking about where you lose someone close to you and then also just generally learning to be a human after trauma. (If all this feels familiar to you, hi.)
Everything I write from now on will be in that context, though I know I’ll still write some about cheese, so that context doesn’t mean that life has lost all hope.
So what are my three options then, if I can’t lose the context? If I can’t pretend like life isn’t as too-big as the Grand Canyon?
I could be defeated and stop writing at all, stop speaking up, stop showing up, stop trying to help anybody. Ugh that one is tempting. Home feels real damn safe today, and no judgment to you if that’s where you’ve permanently washed ashore.
Or I could try so hard to write about absolutely aalllll the overflowing stuff that the page stays blank, no matter how many Starbucks Venti Salted Caramel Cream Cold Brews I blow through.
Or I could remember that all-or-nothing isn’t the only option. And I could do the unromantic work of saying “Okay, as a writer, what can I share that would help someone?” and letting myself just give my weird best to it, even when it doesn’t feel like enough.
I think I’m going to have to go with the third option.
I’d love to stop showing up. I’d love to admit that I’m deeply flawed (evne my writing) and say “the world doesn’t need my voice anymore.” But then I think after a while I wouldn’t love it anymore. Humans need humans. Isolation didn’t feel good, remember? I could probably fairly comfortably just socially-retire to a life of paychecks and wine-and-cheese and not talk to anybody anymore about mental health or poverty or abuse or kindness. (Remember, that’s the lifestyle the Buddha was born into?) But then I think about how much I’ve benefited from the brave souls who didn’t choose to retire from community–Viktor Frankl, the Buddha, my psychologist friend–and that list would never end. How much I’ve needed people to show up.
I’d love to write every damn thing, but as 125-words-per-minute as I can possibly type, I can’t write everything, and the Grand Canyon of life stuff is too endlessly massive. And I know that if I keep opening WordPress with the goal of finally writing “the right thing,” “the worthwhile thing,” “the big thing,” I’ll keep clicking “Save draft” and going back home. And then I think of all the people who have also been so overwhelmed by life, but still chose to show up incrementally with their imperfect, flawed, humble, half-baked words that have guided the rest of us through life.
A note about our imperfect, as-good-as-we-can-for now offerings: I just finished reading Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. (By the way, you should read it. It is pretty . . . eye-opening. And pretty distasteful. And incredibly worth your time and attention.) One common pattern that stood out to me among anti-racist thinkers through history was how much their own perspectives shifted through their lives–from Martin Luther King, Jr. to W.E.B. Du Bois. In other words, they could look back and say “I think I got XYZ a little wrong” (frequently it was about discovering the longer they lived that the gentle, don’t-hurt-people’s-feelings methods of fighting racism tended to be less effective than they’d hoped). But their intellectual evolutions didn’t cancel the powerful good they had done before their views morphed. Similarly (on a much tinier scale), I can look back at my “Life is beautiful” speech and realize that it clearly helped at least as many people as I saw crying by the end of it, even though if I rewrote it now it would be pretty different. Imperfect today doesn’t mean useless.
Which brings me back to that third option: I can’t stop showing up to help you, because I know I wouldn’t survive without you showing up to help me. And I can’t wait to help you until I “get it” enough to write all the perfect solutions, confident that I’m never misguidedly misguiding anybody. Which means I’m going to have to do that middle one: Show up as best I can today, which is to say, perfectly imperfect like a human. Like you. Like every other human voice that has helped humans through human history.
So I’ll keep writing, even though all my words will never end child abuse across the world, and will never totally destigmatize mental health struggles, and will never give you the perfect recipe for vulnerably showing up in healthy relationships. I’ll just have to give you the little pieces I’ve got for now–my best educated guesses for today. And I promise to keep offering these, because I’ve been saved and carried and inspired by the best guesses offered by a bunch of other overwhelmed humans.
We’re a strange, stressed out species that keeps getting the answers wrong. But where would you be without that imperfect podcast that made you feel less alone, that imperfect text that made you feel understood, that imperfect news report that gave you a little hope, or that imperfect hug that was actually perfect?
We survive and thrive on each other’s imperfect help.
Grief has been loudly insisting to me in the last few months (actually, the last 29 years minus a couple denial-level happy-go-lucky ones in the middle there) that I’m too broken and imperfect and misguided for my voice to help you.
I bet you’ve had some similar feels this last year or so. That there’s nothing you can do. That it’s all too much. That you’re too burnt out now, too bitter, too over it all. That you should just turn your light off now.
I love pink. It feels happy. When I walked into Starbucks today in my pink shirt, the human behind the counter (with a big history I don’t know and probably lots of sad reasons not to be kind) beamed at me and said “I like your shirt,” and it made me smile from deep down inside my heart. It made me feel good. It made me feel confident. It was like a little shot of life-and-meaning-and-love fuel.
Last year, feeling overwhelmed by and guilty for all the suffering all around the world, I asked an imperfect friend to talk to me about it. He gave some imperfect insights that he had gleaned from an imperfect life. And his imperfect best guesses gave me a hope that keeps me going to this day.
Speaking of 4500 words, we’re only 500 away, and you’re still reading. Why have you read all this? Well first of all, I’ve somehow tricked you into paying attention to my pent up ramblings, so thanks for that. But really–why are we doing this?
If you’re anything like me, life has gotten pretty big in the last year or so. Too big. Personal life, local life, worldwide life. There’s a lot. It’s a lot to show up for.
I’m betting that you’re feeling pretty disenchanted.
That the world is feeling hard to show up for.
That smiles are a little harder to offer.
That you don’t think anyone will listen to you anyway.
That you’ve had so much eye-opening happen that you’re a little embarrassed and unsure of yourself.
That you don’t think the world needs your voice anymore. Your help.
But that person who took my order today offered me this little spark of joy that gave me a real boost.
And that friend I went to last year who had been taking his own blows gave me his best words to ponder and it changed my life.
You know something–even if you only know it vaguely or have a bit of it wrong–you know something, you have something that holds some hope for another struggling human next door to you.
You have some lessons, some messages, some dreams, some hugs, some art, some activism, some advice, some words inside of you that, no matter how small you’re feeling, will make the world a little bit of a better place.
That friend explained to me that I can’t help the whole world and if I try I will burn out and help absolutely no one. He said that I’ll be lucky if I can really deeply help 7 or 8 people in my lifetime–like make a huge difference for them. But those 7 or 8 people can help 7 or 8 others. Who can help 7 or 8 others. And pretty soon the help is multiplying.
But not if you and I give up.
If we let the overwhelm make us too angry to speak or too hopeless to speak, then we’ll be alone and everyone else will be alone.
So if I keep writing bits and pieces that may help a few people–will you keep shining your light?
It’s not perfect. It’s not the answer. And I know you don’t totally “get it.” But that little text, that little Facebook post, that little hug, that little encouragement, that little story, that little perspective–somebody needs it, just like you need it from somebody.
If I keep showing up, will you?
And will you really show up?
I love you, but I’m honestly not super interested in your 5-ways-to-look-happy-on-social-media. I want the real you. I need the real you. We need the real you.
Will you show up for your people tomorrow? The real you, the vulnerable you, the you that understands people, the you with an ear to listen, the you with a kind word, the you with a life-story that will make another human feel less alone and give a little hope, and maybe even a helpful idea or two?
There are a million reasons not to use your voice for good in this world, not to use your voice for love and light.
But there are about 7.9 billion reasons to come out of isolation and offer to help us other humans in whatever imperfect ways you can.
We need your message.
We need your encouragement.
We need your kindness.
We need your story.
We need you.
4648. Maybe I’m still a writer after all.
Some imperfect help for each other? I’ll write for you. <3
I just finished reading a beautiful little book called Siddhartha. It’s a very colorful story about a man who crossed paths with the Buddha and lived a hundred other little adventures on his way to finding meaning, fulfillment, and peace in life.
The book literally led to a few tears as I read on the airplane. And led to the occasional discreet hiding of a page, so the teenager next to me couldn’t read the parts about Siddhartha’s lover teaching him “the game of love . . . one of the thirty or forty different games [she] knew. . . .” Like the one “which the textbooks call ‘climbing a tree.'” Like I said. Colorful.
But honestly, it was a really eye-opening book. Really deeply human and incredibly inspiring.
I think one of the most human lessons I’ve learned in all of life is this–and the book was a really strong reminder of it:
“Quoth Siddhartha: ‘What should I possibly have to tell you, oh venerable one? Perhaps that you’re searching far too much? That in all that searching, you don’t find the time for finding?'” – Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha
When we try really hard to be happy, happiness is elusive.
But sometimes when you stop trying, you discover that you are happy.
Siddhartha spent years and years and years of his life looking for peace and wisdom everywhere, only to find that it had been there with him all along.
He just had to stop searching.
“Everyone’s always trying so damn hard. Trying to be good enough. Trying to rest. Working hard at relaxing. Everyone’s trying so hard to stop being spiritually exhausted and overwhelmed, because that’s ingrained in us. Trying so hard might just be the exact problem.” – an excerpt from an old message I ran across that I wrote to my sister
What if we stopped trying so damn hard?
What if every now and then we paused in all our searching?
Maybe we have all we need.
Like Andy Bernard from The Office says: “I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve left them.”
If you know me, you know I like to read. A lot. Like a nerdy lot. Especially if audiobooks on commutes count. So I’ve read a lot of books! And I strongly believe in the power of reading to help people make sense of life and discover who (and how) they want to be.
I’d love to say EVERY book is life-changing. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words resonate with me: “I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten–even so, they have made me.” But there are a few books I’ve read that have made such a big difference in my life–personally and professionally–that I can truly say I changed significantly as a person from reading them. 7 come to mind. I’ve found that over the years when people have asked me to recommend some books for them, these are always my go-to’s.
So if you’re looking for your next great read, looking for fuel to grow personally or professionally, or just curious to give reading a shot, try one of these:
1. The Power of a Positive No
This is almost always my top recommendation. I think it’s a universal thing to have trouble saying “no”–no to more busy schedule stuff, no to what people want to get from you, and no to how someone is treating you.
William Ury, a world-famous negotiation specialist, gives an incredibly simple and useful formula for saying no in a way that communicates deep care for the person you’re saying it to. He takes a motivating look at what’s so difficult about saying no in the first place, and why it’s so important to learn to say it anyway. And he makes it all so tangible and relateable that by the time you finish the book, you’re feeling ready and excited for your first opportunity to put it into practice.
I’ve used what I learned from it countless times, including for some of the biggest, scariest no’s I’ve ever had to say. I can honestly say this may have be the most influential book in my life–an absolute lifesaver! (Reading difficulty: 5 out of 10 | Get it on Amazon)
2. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us
This book is exactly what the subtitle says: A surprising and eye-opening look at what makes people want to do things. Whenever I’m asked to recommend a good business, leadership, or professional book, this is the one!
Anyone who leads people, manages people, leads or manages themselves (or is a people), will find this an incredibly helpful read. I remember having so many “aha” moments. It explains so much about why we frequently burn out or lose interest when driven by things like authority or money and other carrots and sticks. And it opens your eyes to a whole world of internal fuel and energy. We do the things best and longest that we reallywant to do. As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry put it, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”
This translates exceptionally well into practical management strategy. “Intrinsic motivation” seems truly to be the strongest driver you can help your people find. This book is a game-changer! (Reading difficulty: 6 out of 10 | Get it on Amazon)
3. Coming to Our Senses
Here’s a good example of a book you don’t know you need to read until you read it. We live in a crazy, noisy, busy, overwhelming world. This book helps find and grow peace, calmness, happiness, and beauty in that world–all in a down-to-earth, accessible way.
Jon Kabat-Zinn helped bring mindfulness meditation to the west, through developing practices like clinical meditation for stress reduction and, and through popular writings like Full Catastrophe Living. Do yourself a huge favor and give this a shot! I hesitate to say much about it, because there are already so many stereotypes and misinformed cliches about “meditation.” Just know that it’s not what you think. And that if you’ll invest the time, reading this can be one of the most mentally cleansing and freeing experiences in your life, and can equip you to keep that peace with you all through life.
Pro tip: Unless you’re ready to seriously take the plunge, ease yourself into this one by first listening to the abridged audiobook (his own narration, about 3 hours), or through his shorter book Wherever You Go There You Are. Just know that the unabridged Coming to Our Senses is a long one and worth taking the time to chew on. (Reading difficulty: 7 out of 10) | Get it on Amazon) (Abridged audiobook difficulty: 2 out of 10 | Get it on Audiobooks)
4. Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents
This always feels like an awkward one to recommend, but I wish the big scary personal life things were less awkward. We’re all human, and we’ve all been through rough times, made mistakes, and struggled with hurt. The truth is, whether this book is about your own experience or about understanding the experiences of other people you love, this is an incredibly eye-opening book. With each page you turn, your appreciation grows a little more for the big-ness of emotional abuse and neglect, and for how it continues to affect people deeply, straight through adult life.
This book is about understanding your own struggles or those of your loved ones. But it’s also just as much a book about hope and healing. It powerfully humanizes the people who have done the hurt (that really impressed me), and it draws clear, freeing pictures of where that hurt came from. It helps you find a way for yourself or your loved ones to step out of the cycle of trauma, to see things for what they really are, and to make positive, healthy, happy decisions about how to do life.
Fair warning: This book is not for the faint of heart. It can be an emotionally exhausting read, but it’s also an incredibly empowering one. (Reading difficulty: 4 out of 10 | Get it on Amazon)
5. The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization
This book could be called Long-Term Thinking 101. It’s a management classic, and it’s one I honestly think should be required reading for all executives and mid- to upper-level managers in companies everywhere (or really for everyone).
Peter Senge delves deep into the world of “Systems Thinking,” identifying cycles and patterns that continuously reappear in business, politics, and even in personal life. History repeats itself again and again and we learn too many lessons the hard way, largely because it takes so long to realize the long-term effects of today’s actions and decisions. By the time one initiative brings a part of the company crashing down, the waters have been muddied by ten other initiatives that have kicked off more recently, and few of the managers have been around long enough to trace the cycle of cause-and-effect.
This book is an amazing primer on thinking carefully about how we got where we are today, and how to actually get where we want to go tomorrow–and how to not ruin everything in the meantime. It’s also pretty heavy academic reading, so buckle up and get ready to think hard! (Reading difficulty: 9 out of 10 | Get it on Amazon)
6. Escape from Freedom
I feel a little bit weird about putting this on my list. In fact, it might have sneaked its way on here due in part to how recently I read it. But I have a feeling this one’s effects will last a lifetime. It was originally published during World War II and explores why individuals and entire populations make weird and disturbing choices.
Big disclaimer right off the bat: I got to the end of this one and still totally disagreed with a lot of Fromm’s outlook on life and its meaning. But reading this also seriously stretched me. It made me think harder than just about any other book I’ve read. And it made the whole world make so much more sense. Best (and worst) of all, it opened my eyes to a lot of manufactured safety nets I’ve depended on through life that, at the end of the day, won’t provide me the safety I’m looking for. The gist is this: We’re born into a very structured environment. As we grow up we start to see just how arbitrary a lot of authority and tradition is. So we kick and scream for our freedom. And then we get our freedom. And it is terrifying! The intense anxiety that true freedom produces is staggering. So we try to re-submit ourselves to whatever authorities or thoughts used to give us security and confidence in our roles. But it’s too late–we know better, and pretending we still fit into the world we escaped from will drive us (literally) crazy. The other option is to bravely accept the freedom we have found, and live and love honestly.
Don’t read if you’re not ready for some deep reflection. This one is pretty brutal. (Reading difficulty: 7 out of 10 | Get it on Amazon)
7. Social Intelligence
I’m going to cheat and combine two books: You really should read Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence before this one. Goleman popularized the scientific study of “EQ” (as opposed to “IQ”). In most areas of life, having emotional maturity, strength, understanding, and awareness provides more benefits and leads to more success than does IQ–the more traditional measurement of potential, focused on logic and intellect.
Social Intelligence goes a step further than his first book and explores the intricacies of relationships and communication. It includes fascinating stories about how people work and fit together and great practical tips about how to communicate, work, and live effectively with others. So many things will click into place as you read this. “Oooooh, that’s why…” is a thought I had over and over while I read this, as past and present relationships suddenly made sense.
Both Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence are very easy and very rewarding books to read. I found the second even more helpful for me than the first. Need help being a person? Read Daniel Goleman. (Reading difficulty: 2 out of 10 | Get it on Amazon)
So those are my favorites–the ones that have made the biggest difference in my life.
I always love helping people find helpful books to learn and grow from, so if you’re ever looking for a good recommendation–even if it’s for a specific topic or situation–don’t hesitate to ask!
“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.” – Henry Ford