and so I’m offering this simple phrase to kids from one to ninety-two
The Christmas Song
One of my earliest vivid memories, marked by the musty smell of old books in the college library: Two fellow professors stopped my dad and struck up a conversation. They held their briefcases and said big sentences to each other and I knew that the world would be okay. The grown ups were in charge.
I can’t remember, on the other hand, when exactly I began to realize that’s not true. First, they’re not really in charge. Second, they’re not really grown ups anyway. I think I see this more and more every year.
I wonder what would happen if all the people who think they’re in charge remembered every day just how not grown up they are and not grown up everyone else is.
The term “grown up” is misleading, and I a little bit vote we retire it.
Have you ever slowed down enough to carry on a conversation with a little kid? It’s funny, they’re shockingly alive.
Jack was my oldest tiger, Sebastian was my biggest tiger, and Dakota was my favorite tiger. It’s not that my world quite revolved around them and all their stuffed siblings, it was more like they were my family, like I retreated to them for love after a day of facing my other family. There was Basil (pronounced like the pesto, because who doesn’t like basil pesto?) the beanie gorilla, and Peter Rabbit the sleepy rabbit, and India, the beanie baby bengal given to me by my best friends’ little sister I had a transient crush on, and more. (Notice the tiger theme, because tigers are awesome.)
At its peak, I think my stuffed family consisted of 50 or so. And while I remember a few of their names, it’s challenging because their names morphed every few weeks (kids clearly don’t automatically think identities must be set in stone). The whole lot of us would gather for a feast, prepare for a battle, or hunker down for a stormy night. I loved my stuffed animals.
“You’re getting older now, Peter. You’re becoming a man. It’s time for you to stop playing with stuffed animals.”
It felt like getting punched in the gut. I hadn’t thought yet of questioning my dad’s alwaysrightness, but I knew this one felt impossible. My face felt a little numb and dizzy and I cried tears of growing-responsibility and I loosened my grasp on wonder a little more.
My dad softened a little and let me keep the tigers only. The rest had to go. Adulthood is inevitable.
Each time a need goes unmet, we’re called by society to bury it deeper. This is called growing up.
We’re encouraged to get in line. Follow the guidance the other “adults” made up. Not rock the boat. Do our budget and then die someday.
Rarely are we encouraged to get back on all fours and imagine again that we’re a tiger living under a waterfall in the jungle. Or even just to laugh or cry or dream like a child.
I’m not saying don’t budget, don’t work hard, don’t do important grown up things. If nobody did grown up stuff we wouldn’t have doctors and farmers and plumbers.
But the doctors and farmers and plumbers and politicians and pastors and CEO’s aren’t as certain as we think they are. Somewhere under numerous coats of grown-up paint, they’ve still got their sensitive childhood-colored skin.
And while we grown ups have to make grown up decisions and face a grown up world and take grown up responsibility, we could make the world a safer place by remembering and reminding each other that deep down, we’re all just doing our childlike best.
It’s okay to retreat back into your pillow fort once in a while. The world isn’t as grown up as you think it is.
The world is not as okay as we believed it was when we were 5. The grown ups aren’t really in charge. And the ones in charge today won’t be tomorrow.
But maybe while we fight an ongoing fight to protect each other from angry or selfish grown ups with their guns and their rules and their money and their hierarchies, we also make the world a little safer by coming back to our childlike selves and each childlike other. Making the same safe space for each other now that we felt decades ago, where we get to retreat for a minute and let everything be “okay” for now.
None of us can carry the grown up world without childlike rest.
And I want to just say, those childlike rests are very much more possible for some of us than for others. I’m a white male whose family has lived in America for generations. I have no kids to pay for, and a salary that allows me to disappear to the mountains on occasion. I can afford Disney+ and a TV to watch it on. Whether or not I “should,” I can habitually buy artisan cheeses that cost $24.99 per pound.
And I have neighbors that can’t. And many neighbors can’t because of decades and centuries where our world went along with the “grown ups” who insisted they’d figured out how to make the world better. But better for who?
So as we make ourselves spaces to soothe our inner child, let’s also make safe spaces for our neighbors who don’t have what we have.
I had scores of stuffed animals. Somewhere in my city there is a kid clinging to an old tattered one. And after thousands of years and trillions of dollars, the grown ups haven’t yet figured out how to fix this difference. So maybe sometimes when we retreat to our pillow forts, we can invite a friend who doesn’t have a retreat.
tl;dr “grown up” is a lie or at least an unhelpful term, nobody has it all figured out, it’s okay to admit you’re still a child, and remember to share <3
Can I join you on your fight against growing all the way up?
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?
Waddling’s the word for the way Willoughby walked. Willoughwaddles.
He was an old man when we adopted him. But as slowly and arthritically as he moved 95% of the time, he was still ready for an occasional mad dash when we played hide and seek, or to stand his ground like the Rock of Gibraltar when he wasn’t done sniffing a tree trunk.
The first time I remember seeing Willoughby run was at a rest stop in Wisconsin. Lyssi was gone for a couple minutes, which was a couple minutes too long. When he saw her coming, he started walking, and as she got closer, and he became more sure, he took off bounding toward her and gave her a giant Willoughby hug.
There was something about that moment. You know how in the movies when two people love each other to death and see each other from a distance, there’s this Valentinesy moment where they pick up speed and run into each other’s arms? And you feel like “Ugh, I want that to happen to me.” Well that’s what dogs give us. That moment never went away.
If you read what I write, you may have gotten your fill of grief lately. Welcome to grief. This is, apparently, how it works. At some point, I’ll also write about other things. But not today. Grief has been on my mind, and I want to share with you some things I’ve learned in the last few months. I know you’re going to lose something or someone, too. Maybe already have. You’ll probably grieve many losses. And it’s just the worst. And there are a couple things that have been surprisingly helpful, so maybe they’ll help you.
For weeks and weeks after Willoughby died, I couldn’t stop playing this scene in my head: Somehow, somewhere, sometime I’d see Willoughby from across a distance. He’d see me, and he’d get that look in his eyes, and he’d start moving, and the waddles would turn into a run, and he’d land in my arms again, tail wagging, sneezes sneezing.
I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
And then a few different friends gave me cards with the story of the Rainbow Bridge. The beloved pets we have lost “all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. His bright eyes are intent. His eager body quivers. Suddenly he begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs carrying him faster and faster. You have been spotted . . .”
It’s not real.
But it’s a story worth imagining.
And I’ve imagined it again and again and again. And I keep feeling “If only . . .”
When I think about seeing Willoughby again, hearing his old man bark, seeing him running and playing, it hurts a lot. Sometimes I cry. Sometimes I really cry. Each time feels a little different as grief winds its weird path and I feel the Willoughwaves come and go.
But it never doesn’t hurt to think about. So why keep thinking about it?
Like most of us, I always assumed that it would feel better not to think about the wonderful things we’ve lost. The things we were so attached to that the memory physically hurts. I remember my psychologist friend sharing that a lot of his clients who have lost loved ones say that they can’t let themselves start thinking about it, because if they start crying they’ll never stop. We believe grief will overwhelm and break us. That if we let it in, it will be too much. Permanent.
But it actually doesn’t work that way.
The first surprising grief lesson I’ll share was this weird thing that worked.
Pizza tasted good, but it didn’t really carry us through our feelings. Distractions delayed some tears, which honestly was really helpful, but then the distractions ended. The one activity that seemed to “work” in any healing way was watching videos of Willoughby.
I didn’t think I’d be able to handle pictures of Willoughby, let alone videos, but it turned out they were the exact medicine. Especially the videos. The videos gave me his sound. I got to watch him and listen to him and relive the memories and fully feel how badly I love him.
And then, strangely, it would feel . . . better . . . ?
Which is the opposite, I think, of what we expect. Grief knocks us down, so we think the best defense is to not let it knock us down, and we find ourselves worn out bracing against its power, “not listening, not listening.”
But when we finally do listen, look, feel . . . it sort of moves through us. It does its thing.
Emotions are made to be felt, not fought. Well before Willoughby died, I gave a blog post the title Letting the waves do their thing. I described how surfing is used as an analogy for life–when the waves come, we learn to ride the waves. But not just that. We often forget that surfers don’t just ride the waves, they also wipe out, because from time to time a wave comes that is too big, and it pulls them under into a current that is too strong, and surfers have to learn a life-saving lesson: You can’t fight the water. When it pulls you under, you have to swim with it, or at least not against it. If you try to fight it, you will drown. And I think life is the same way. The waves are surfable, but at some point they’re going to knock you down and pull you under, and those giant emotions are too strong to fight. Too strong to deny. Too strong to say things like “well at least” or “it’s okay because.” Too strong to look the other way and distract ourselves. So when we try to fight them, we lose. They just get bigger and bigger and become more and more deeply entrenched. And one day our dams will break.
The strange thing that my psychologist friend gets to share with his clients who are afraid to let the tears start is that when we actually get open and honest and familiar and accepting with the tears, the emotions move through us. Emotions, when allowed, do their thing and then . . . let up. The current is strong, but if you go with it, it will let you back up for air.
Emotions, when blocked, exhaust us and grow bigger. Emotions, when accepted, fulfill their purpose and then recede.
And sure enough, when I put on that SYML song that brings me back to the drive to say one last goodbye, or when I tell a friend who is brave and thoughtful enough to ask all about him, or when I watch the videos of Willoughby being Willoughby–the tears come. And then they go. And it . . . helps.
So that’s thing one: Watch the videos, let the memories in, feel the feels. Deep. It hurts deep, but it heals deep.
And it keeps working that way, 4 months later. The longer I try to just put those thoughts and memories away when they creep up, the more ominous and yucky it feels. And when I finally just go, “Okay, time to hear the Willoughby playlist again,” it heals. It’s better.
At least for me. So maybe for you?
Why is it better for me to feel it all the way and let the grief grieve? I think maybe because Willoughby’s not actually gone from my heart. So trying to deny his visits to my heart hurts worse than just remembering the love and feeling him again.
Nora McInerny has a lot to say about this, and the day we let Willoughby go I listened again to her Ted Talk on grief, because I needed to remember that it is okay not to move on from Willoughby. I’m attaching her Ted Talk at the bottom of this post, because I hope, hope, hope you’ll watch it. It has been the perfect guide for me.
Thing two that seems to have really helped is this weird, masochistic-sounding experiment I did through the whole process.
Loss can change people. There’s something I’ve heard about the likelihood of couples who lose children breaking up. It’s just hard to survive deep losses. It’s hard to be healthy about them. It’s hard not to just throw shit at the walls and scream. It’s hard not to blame. It’s hard not to clam up. It’s hard. It’s all hard.
In his life-changing book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk explores the origins of trauma. It’s fascinating. I promise this is way over-simplified, but: One of the reasons trauma is so traumatic is that it is too much to show up for, too much to process in our brains. Too terrifying to look closely. Like the shadow in the closet. We hide under our blanket instead of investigating, so we spend the rest of our lives under our blanket instead of seeing that the shadow has come and gone.
In Off Camera with Sam Jones, Matt Damon describes the true-to-life flavor they gave a scene in the movie Contagion. Near the beginning of the movie, a doctor tells Damon’s character that his wife has died. “Right. . . . can I go talk to her?” In researching how this would play, they learned from doctors that they’re trained to use very specific language. They don’t say soft things like “didn’t make it,” they get real brutally direct: “Their heart stopped and they did die.” Apparently the word “did” gives it some extra force. They do this because that truth is so hard for people to hear that we literally won’t hear it. Won’t understand it. Won’t accept it.
It’s easier to not look at the worst stuff. To block it out. To stuff it down. To turn our feelings off. To lie to ourselves and say “I’m fine.” To pretend the trauma’s not really there. To not look at it. To not touch it.
Because some things are too scary. Too awful.
But then, when we deny it, when we stay in the denial stage or the bargaining stage, it roots deeply in our core as trauma. Something we couldn’t bear to show up for, something that’s too big a monster hiding in the closet. So we live the rest of our lives in its shadow. Avoiding triggers. Emotionally shut down. Carefully blocking the experience.
So what would happen with that experience if instead of shutting down during it we opened all the way up to it?
My experiment was to stay outrageously present for Willoughby’s death. No denying. No pretending. No blocking. No looking away. No trying to get away. No shutting out or shutting down. Just all the way present.
What did I feel? What did I hear? What did I smell? What did I see? And what–exactly what–was happening in my heart? And could I sit with it? Sit in it?
My heart was saying “I’m not ready for this! I can’t let you go, Willoughby.” I’ve never cried that hard and may never again. I felt the cold rain sprinkling on my skin. I heard the cars drive by as we stood in the alley behind the vet clinic. I heard Willoughby’s silence. Too tired. I smelled Willoughby as I leaned down to kiss his forehead. Again. And again. I felt Lyssi’s shoulders as we held onto each other. I heard my calming voice telling, promising Willoughby we weren’t going anywhere and telling him he’d been such a good boy. I saw Willoughby’s head peeking out from under the covers. I watched his eyes move. I noticed how completely normal but still tender this moment felt to the nurse who came out when we said we were ready. I listened to her explain what happens. And then I watched Willoughby’s eyes get really big all of a sudden. Like something was happening. And then he got sleepy and peaceful. We said silly things like “Thank you” to the nurse and walked back to the car. We sat in it and held each other and cried. Together. For a long time.
Lyssi and I agreed to be really present with each other for the grief. To accept it, to let each other show all the yucky pain, to be all the way emotionally available and emotionally together about it, no matter how awful.
It would have been easier to be a trooper. To keep my chin up. To “be strong.” It would have been easier to “can’t think about it right now,” or to get back to work, or to take care of things and do stuff. It was definitely harder to be consciously, carefully present. In the moment.
And I don’t think I can describe how much it has helped. It was a moment full of love that I will never ever get back. And if I hadn’t said the things and given him the kisses, I wouldn’t have that memory. If I hadn’t soaked it all in, it would be gone, and I wouldn’t be able to get it back.
And it would be big. A big shadow. That trauma thing.
Have you ever had an anxiety attack? Most of the time, we humans make it through pretty dreadful things. But anxiety is about feeling there’s a too-big thing looming around the corner. One you won’t make it through. And an anxiety attack happens when your body gets too overwhelmed with that undefinable, vague shadow, and begins to panic. So how do you calm an anxiety attack? By returning to the senses. What do you see? What can you touch? What do you hear? What do you smell? What can you taste? Because no matter how awful, usually, when we can return to our senses, we’re able to be there.
I think that happens with grief, too. With loss. It’s pretty gut-wrenchingly awful. And we can run away from the shadow, let the trauma hunt us in a game of hide-and-seek that will never end. Or we can show all the way up for it.
This pain, this loss, has stayed with me in a different way than others have in the past. And I do think it has some to do with how present we stayed for it. No denial. No soldiering on. No turning off feelings.
He was really dying. And we were really there for it. And we will always have that moment. We understood it. No matter how painful, we understood it and got to show up with agency and love in that moment while he crossed that bridge.
I’ve just seen so many people shut down to survive loss, but it always turns out they didn’t survive it. They just hit pause. The loss is still waiting. So maybe they’ll just stay paused. Forever. While the shadow grows bigger, and their heart grows emptier.
Being intentionally present with Willoughby’s death was so hard and so sad. But I think it helped. A lot. I think it saved some trauma. I think it saved some regret. I think it saved some dysfunction. Some struggle. I think it meant I get to look back with tears and love at our goodbye, instead of panicking and running away from the thought for the rest of my life.
I don’t know if either of these will help you.
Deciding to show up in love and presence for the saddest times;
And letting the waves of grief do their thing, healing you as they go.
But they’ve helped me immensely.
So when the waves knock you down and pull you under–and they will–maybe try showing all the way up and feeling the feels.
The Willoughwaves keep coming, for me, but as long as I don’t fight them, they seem to be serving a purpose.
Do you show up for your grief?
P.S. Thanks to Nora McInerny for maybe the most helpful 15 minutes I’ve ever found:
It seems we’re both figuring this whole life thing out as we go. Can I send you updates when I figure more of it out? Wishing you the best!
I think Halloween is an underappreciated Holiday. Not in every way. It’s many people’s favorite, because how fun to dress up, etc. But I mean what Halloween is actually about–the stuff of life behind the Holiday that the day puts us in touch with, even if accidentally and only a little bit.
“The farther we’ve gotten from the magic and mystery of our past, the more we’ve come to need Halloween.”
If you’ve seen Coco or The Book of Life, you can picture the colorful festivity of Día de Muertos, Mexico’s Day of the Dead. You may not be as familiar with Samhain (pronounced “Saa-win”), the Gaelic Holiday, or Zhongyuan Jie, the Chinese Ghost Festival.
When I was a kid, we didn’t celebrate ghosts and witches and goblins and ghouls on Halloween. We talked instead about how it was “All Hallows’ Eve,” the prelude to “All Saints’ Day.” Which turned out not to be much different. A day for remembering dead people . . . which means thinking about death . . . which means facing fear . . . and the unknown . . . and danger . . . and the stories of life and of death.
Much like Halloween.
What’s it all about?
“Always the same but different . . . every age, every time. Day was always over. Night was always coming. . . . afraid . . . that the sun will never rise again . . . all the men in history staring round about as the sun rose and set. Apemen trembled. Egyptians cried laments. Greeks and Romans paraded their dead. Summer fell dead. Winter put it in the grave. A billion voices wept . . . Then, with cries of delight, ten thousand times a million men welcomed back bright summer suns which rose to burn each window with fire! . . . People vanished forever. They died, oh Lord, they died! But came back in dreams. Those dreams were called Ghosts, and frightened men in every age. . . . Night and day. Summer and winter . . . Seedtime and harvest. Life and death. That’s what Halloween is, all rolled up in one. Noon and midnight. Being born. Rolling over, playing dead like dogs . . . And getting up again, barking, racing through thousands of years of death each day and each night Halloween . . . every night, every single night dark and fearful until at last you made it and hid in cities and towns and had some rest and could get your breath. And you began to live longer and have more time, and space out the deaths and put away fear, and at last have only special days in each year when you thought of night and dawn and spring and autumn and being born and being dead. And it all adds up. Four thousand years ago, one hundred years ago, this year, one place or another, but the celebrations all the same: The Feast of Samhain, The Time of the Dead Ones, All Souls’, All Saints’, The Day of the Dead, El Dia De Muerte, All Hallows’, Halloween.”
Ray Bradbury, The Halloween Tree
Once upon a time, winter was sort of a season of death, of fear. When Autumn came, you harvested the food and prepared to hibernate. Life and growth would soon be put on hold. Then the nights grew longer, the cold came, and you braced. Hibernated. Hoped. Waiting for life to come back in the spring.
And then, as Bradbury described, we as a species learned to thrive straight through the winter with cities and towns lit by electricity, warm houses, warm offices, warm cars. Freshly grown food shipped in a matter of days from the other side of the globe where the sun was still shining.
So we live longer. And we don’t have to fear death as frequently. We don’t have to fear the dark quite so much, or the seasons, or the cold. Life isn’t put on pause for several shivering months, and we aren’t reminded quite so strongly of our mortality.
But still, once a year, this season comes around . . . and we talk again about spooky things like death and fear and darkness. We keep some of the stories, some of the ghosts, some of the hauntings, some of the magic. And–most of all–we dress up as Iron Man or Pikachu and gorge ourselves on candy. So good, so fun, so absolutely worthwhile.
What of the ghost stories? People now tend not to believe in ghosts quite like people did hundreds or thousands of years ago. Or magic. Or monsters. Or omens. Or bad luck. (Actually, maybe yes–bad luck.) We understand the scary noises in the dark, we understand how dreams work, and hallucinations. We have light switches that can suddenly explain the secrets the shadows held, once upon a time.
So why do we still celebrate? What draws us in? Halloween and all its spookiness and darkness still intrigue us.
I think because we’re still mortal. And we can’t help but pay attention to the reminders of our mortality. And because we desperately need stories of darkness, because we desperately need stories of overcoming the darkness. Not for the same reasons we did a thousand years ago. For different reasons now.
We’re not likely to starve if the winter runs too long, or to get frostbite. But when January comes around, a huge number of us fall into seasonal depression. We just have different kinds of darkness that haunt us now. Less magical, more . . . . . modern.
And it’s not so much about winter, just as winter and death were never truly synonymous. Winter was just the reminder of the fear and danger and death and struggle in the cycle of life. We still have that life cycle. It looks, feels, and sounds more modern now. But we still have it. We still have the bad stuff happen. We still feel the darkness, the fear. We still worry–a lot–maybe more than people have ever worried, now that we’re all confronted every day with every story to worry about all around the globe.
There are still monsters. And we still need stories.
Stories that allow us to feel the darkness. And stories of making our way safely through the darkness to the other side. Stories to help us be brave. Stories that give us hope.
“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
Imaginative stories of ghosts and goblins and exorcisms and aliens and witches and hauntings and spooky cabins in the woods . . . they do that. They let us feel all the dark feelings, and then let us get to the other side–usually with the story’s hero still intact.
We’ve all got the darkness, the fears, the struggles.
As we grow up and out of our imaginations, we try to turn off the feelings, deny the darkness, suppress the struggles. We can’t imagine opening up about what’s inside of us, facing our demons. We’re afraid that if we look inside, we won’t be able to handle the pains and the fears. So–in general–we decide to be grown up instead. No more feelings. No more hopes. No more dreams and magic in life. Just surviving, being responsible, and eventually dying.
And then, one day, we remember just how much meaning and magic and feeling there is in life. And we wonder why we stopped paying attention to the ghosts and fairy tales. Why we had to get so stuffy and dry.
And when that happens–we pick up a book. A fairy tale, a story about magic. Or we find a movie born out of deep imagination. Or we take a walk in the cool fall breeze and watch the red and yellow leaves swirling and remember the rather blustery day that Winnie-the-Pooh had, and remember that we were more in touch with the stuff of life when we were young.
“Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”
C. S. Lewis
All of which Halloween ramblings, typed away with a Halloween wind blowing the Halloween trees outside my window, bring me to a simple thought: Life is full of magic. Really good magic, and really dark magic. And being deeply in touch with the light and the darkness, death and life, remembering courage, remembering celebrations, and feeling . . . young . . . those matter.
Alive is more alive against the backdrop of all those days of the dead.
And you’re still alive today.
Every Halloween . . . you get to remember all of this, celebrate all this, believe in all this, feel all this. You’re alive. And life has some darkness, but you are brave.
One-on-one. A group of friends. An audience watching you on stage. Whatever the context–truly, deeply connecting is the key to making a difference, to getting your message across, to building trust, to leaving a lasting impression, to inspiring good.
And I don’t think the ingredients in genuine connection differ too much from context to context.
So how DO you truly connect?
These aren’t the “top 3 ways.” There are lots of top 3 ways. But here are 3 ways that I found EXTREMELY useful in crafting a recent speech for my Toastmasters club:
1. Don’t describe your history. Use stories that give them the chance to feel your history.
Stories are said to increase your audience’s memory by twenty-two times what they’ll retain from the rest of your words. Stories are powerful.
I think where we can go wrong with stories, though, is telling people everything we think about our stories–how we felt about them, how we understood them, how everything fit in. Those aren’t bad things, but they’re not what’s memorable. What’s memorable–what really connects–is taking your audience’s hand and walking them through the story for themselves. It’s okay if they fill the story in with a few different colors and shapes than you. Let their imagination do its thing. All you need to do is put the audience right there. To put them through the experience as bluntly as you can.
I will understand you far better by reliving a couple crazy moments from your childhood than by hearing all the philosophizing you want to do about it all.
2. Get weirdly specific.
I wish I could take credit for this idea. I have learned to use it a lot, but I learned its value from an interview with a comedian. I’m pretty sure it was John Mulaney. Might have been Mike Birbiglia. It may have been John Mulaney talking about what he learned from Mike Birbiglia–who knows. Either way, here’s the gist: It’s easy to assume that the more broadly shared your experiences, the more people will get you. Well actually, it turns out that people get realness, not generic-ness. Even if their real was a little different than yours–they can feel your realness. People’s own lives aren’t generic, they’re extremely specific. So get very, super, weirdly specific.
For example: “When I was 18 I used to covertly bypass our burglar alarm at night so that I could sneak out later to take walks . . . alone . . . in the dark . . . in my trench coat.”
I could have told you all about how sheltered I felt my childhood was, the lack of freedom I felt, my desperation to get away, my loneliness and what a lifesaver my loneliness actually was to me, my fear and my need to keep my deepest needs sacred, my imagination and its strangely confident sense of my cool self, and the future version of me I expected to be. But those are ideas–concepts–concepts you may have experienced in your own ways in your own life. And making you listen while I analyze all those ideas through my own lenses requires a lot of attention. It requires a lot of you accepting and translating my interpretations. I don’t need to do all that work with you. And you may not have the time or patience. Instead, I can just give you a few really weird details. Details that make you go, “Oh yeah, I also have a weird life,” and then leaves your imagination filling in the blanks in my story. “What kind of kid wears a trench coat?”