What We Are: The Songbird and the Oak

A friend of mine said it and we both became small:

We are a species.

Yes, like a Songbird or a grove of great Oaks.

Homo Sapiens:

Upright, even-toothed descendants of the other species that didn’t make it, one of the most pervasive, diverse, and dominant species in existence, occupying all spaces, representing all emotions, constantly introducing new methods to reshape and reinvent the minerals we’re stuck with.

We often forget how connected we are.

When one of us dies, many around that one die a little bit too. We wilt because we’re rooted in the same soil and, therefore, susceptible to the same poisons.

Seeded in that connection, across continents and conversations, is our unique prowess, our exponential ingenuity, our robust love, and our downfall.

The timeline is not clear but, blessed with consciousness, compassion, and opposable thumbs, we can manipulate its length. Like the songbird, we make music, but we don’t just chirp notes, we write symphonies. We don’t just build nests, we design them.

We have access to Fate. That’s right. We can call up the composer of this precious life and put in our vote to change the tempo, to add more bars.

And like the Oak at the onset of winter, sometimes silence amongst the chorus is more important than individual growth. Sometimes dormancy is called for, to store our sugar, to let gravity pull our collective vibrancy down into our roots, supple, resilient, and delicately intertwined, so we can outwit and outlast the poison.


The 3 Voices In My Head

We all have voices in our heads. I’ve identified 3 that hang out there the most.

The Hip Hop Artist

The loudest of them all is a potty-mouthed rapper. Irreverent, unyielding, and always talking in slang, the Hip Hop Artist cuts to the chase, cuts to the bone with his words. He’s playful, direct, and intuitive. He says what comes to mind, trusting that his intentions and instincts are all he needs to get the right things out.

The Counselor

A bit more boring and a lot more quiet, The Counselor invites me to talk, to play out scenarios that didn’t happen, are about to happen, or can never happen. The Counselor is loving, nurturing, and proudly dedicated to my survival. The Counselor is not afraid of anything that comes out of my mouth. His voice never raises. He never judges. If I could hug any of my voices, this is the one I would choose, and the one I would refer.

The Buddha

It seems this one has been around the longest, since before I even learned about any particular way of thinking. The Buddha holds the jewels of morality and compassion in his two hands and sometimes it’s the only light I can see. The Buddha always seems to know the way forward, immediately, but he’s never pushy about it. He states his position once and steps back smiling as if co-hosting a show and giving me the stage. He doesn’t care if I follow his advice, and that seems to be where his power lies.

These three are always with me, a motley panel of B-list choreographers, less concerned about the show than the actor. And, somehow, despite all their differences, choosing to take turns at the mic.

It’s that last part that keeps the act from becoming a shit show.

When the voices collide and the words of three wise souls intermingle like shuffled cards, like a radio between stations — that’s the danger, that’s when the magic trick gets foiled.

It’s at this point that my own voice becomes necessary, the star of the show switching places with the hosts to rein them in:

“Alright folks. Easy does it. One at a time. One at a time.”

My voice is the most powerful of all.

I know this because, regardless of the severity of their squabble, the crackle of their static, they always shut up and listen.


One More Piece for Peace

I stole candy from little kids on Halloween.

This is one of my worst moments.

Those who know me, those who have a collection of great Cliff moments, will forgive me. They will cover this faded fragment with the glitter of my good-doings.

Those who don’t know me, well, they have fewer pieces of the collage and this particular piece, this horrible blood-red moment — so vivid and dramatic — it’ll probably go somewhere in the center of it all. It’ll dominate the picture.

It’s a terrible decision-making practice but we do this everyday: we let one piece dominate the picture.

As we thumb-scroll through comments, as we click on those little sideways triangles, we gobble up somebody’s worst piece and we claim to know them fully, or, at least enough, to make a call.

It’s the safe thing to do, but this kind of safe is dangerous. It keeps our little worlds little, and shrinking, our boundaries closing in on us like a brush fire.

Bravery takes risk. Growth requires space. Love goes in all directions.

To keep ourselves whole and expanding, we must dare to learn more, to allow a fragment to be just a fragment, to allow an image to become a person.

We must dare to see the whole picture.

Or, at least one more piece.


Letting Go of Resentment

You put it on because it felt good at the time: that giant velvet cape with the impenetrable, high-grade nylon on the outside. It’s comforting. It protects.

But when you walk around the corner — usually the same corner — where the sun drops down and the wind kicks up, the cape works against you. It becomes hard to walk.

You crouch down, lean into it, clutching your beloved cape around your neck in a fist. The cape thunders behind you; it curls and snaps like a flag.

You walk like this and it’s hard. Your legs tire, your hand cramps, your lungs fill with ice from being in the wind so long.

Sometimes, you give in, let the wind push you back, away from the faces and the outstretched arms and the warmth that’s around the next corner. Sometimes you push through it but, once there, you’re too tired to enjoy those arms and that warmth. You’re busy fixing your hair, adjusting your cape around you, recovering from the storm, and preparing for the next one.

It’s your cycle: becoming cold, getting warm, and missing out.

And it won’t end until you end it.

When you round that corner, when the wind strikes your face, when it pushes on your chest and knocks you back, don’t be angry at the wind.

Remember that you’re holding the cape.

Listen for the crackle of it behind you. Feel its tug. Notice your own fist, there, under your chin, holding that protective shield around you. Look at your whitening knuckles.

Then, open your hand.

That’s all it takes.

With the wind so fierce, your cape will fly off of you by itself. It will travel up into the dark sky like a scared animal, like a banished demon.

You will have your hand back.

You will be able to stand up straight and walk forward.

And, though your shoulders and arms will be exposed and grow cold at first, you will get where you’re going faster, to the warmth, to the faces, and you will feel the warmth and see the faces, because you will no longer be thinking about the wind.


Why Be A Hater When You Can Be a Fan

We rarely hate those with less.

We reserve our hatred for people who have more than we do, who have the things we secretly desire or wonder about.

Hatred is big and vague like a dark sheet over furniture, like a handkerchief over a gun. You have to peel it back to see the thing you’re looking to use.

If it’s anger, then you have some shit inside that needs to get out. The important thing is to get it out, not to find someone to catch it.

If it’s contempt, watch out. It’s contagious and always attacks the host.

If it’s bitterness, you’d better act quickly. Something is eating away at your insides, closing in on your heart, digesting your hope.

If it’s loneliness, well, you know how to fix that.

And if it’s jealousy, you’re in luck. You’ve just discovered something about yourself, a vacancy you need to fill, or at least new knowledge to acquire.

You have to realize that hate is not about the other person. It’s always about you.

With hate, it’s the one holding the gun who receives the blast, tricked by the noise and the direction of the barrel.

Hate hurts the giver. It creates more holes in you. It pushes you away from what you need to know to repair yourself. And, the longer you allow hate to cloak your weapons, the more you’ll keep firing, the farther from the truth you’ll be, and the larger the holes will be for you to mend.


Dealing With Overwhelm

We get overwhelmed, not because we don’t know what to do, but because we have recently learned exactly what we need to do and we can’t yet see the best way to do it.

We feel the weight, the sharp edges cutting into us, and it interrupts our decision-making.

So we don’t do anything.

The thing to remember in this situation is that you must give up your own thought cycle and go find someone else’s.

Go to someone with your pile of puzzle pieces, your shards of broken glass, and ask them to arrange the picture for you.

They’re not better than you. They’re not smarter. They just don’t feel the weight. And, because of this, they have no fear of cutting their hands.


Satan’s Greatest Trick

The greatest trick the devil ever played was convincing people that he could come up from the depths of hell and climb inside our enemies, fill them completely, take them over so that there is nothing left that is good.

When we consider someone to be evil, (i.e. full of satan, ignorance, hate, greed, all those things we prefer to see in everyone but ourselves), we take them off the Earth, we ban them from the Heavens. They become distilled down to a handful of actions, a series of events.

As they are discarded so are their gifts. As they are discarded, so are their loved ones.

The genius in Satan’s ruse is its contagion. So easy to hate, to take, to destroy, to strangle, to discard, at great scale, as long as the thing that is discarded is first despised.

We, the good ones, diligently avoid evil. We believe we cannot be both; no one can touch evil without being consumed by it. This is why we’re so quick to judge: because we need to separate ourselves, immediately and completely, from all forms of it.

We pull back from those we deem infected. We quarantine them into a category, discard them frivolously under the false belief that we don’t need them, forgetting that every illness, every disease ever cured, was injected first.


The Myth About the Fountain of Youth

The real myth about the Fountain of Youth is that it is NOT a fountain.

It is a river.

The secret to vitality couldn’t possibly exist in still waters. It’s not something you can damn up and keep for yourself.

No, it’s stronger than that. It’s wild. It has a current, it takes you without permission.

That’s why you feel young again when it overtakes you: because you’ve rediscovered the invigorating reward of not knowing where you’re headed.

Alas, with time , as we settle into our valleys, meaning well with our homesteads, the roar of the river fades. We forget how to get back.

No matter.

There is an easy way.

Don’t search for the river.

Look for the puddles. Notice the drops of dew falling out of the trees, the intermittent drops of rain out of the sky, right there in front of you, there all the time, waiting to be appreciated.

Drip drip splash splash.
Drip drip splash splash.

A curious thing, those falling drops, that network of puddles, so tiny and quiet, so hidden in plain sight, yet, without fail, delivering on their promise.

They tickle your cheeks, they kiss your eyelids.

That can be enough to revive you.

But there is more. To those who stand still and let the water seep into their shoes, to those that stop to feel the caress of a single droplet of rain, a great reward shall come.

Keep looking up, stay in the stillness of a single moment and you’ll notice many more that come after it, just like the rain.

It starts with a few drops, until suddenly you’re standing in a downpour. And the longer you notice, the heavier the rain gets as if it needs to be appreciated to show itself.

Before you know it, the puddles swell, the valley fills, and a steady current forms. A river is manifested. The river grows wild, picks you off the ground and carries you in its wildness.

At first it’s worry, not elation, that fills you up. The homestead. The crops. What will come of them?

But then you realize you have something more important, something that comes before the home and the crops.

You are awake. You are alive. You are young again.


The Race

I was helping my daughter put together her pinewood derby car for Girl Scouts. We were laying on our stomachs lining up the nail to go through the tire at the exact right angle. As I was explaining why it was important to make sure the tire doesn’t rub the wood she surprised me with this:

“Daddy, relax. This isn’t a winning car.”

Wait. What?

Why make a pinewood derby car and race a pinewood derby race if you’re not planning on winning the pinewood derby race?

We’ve gone to these races 2 years in a row and Evaline finished somewhere in the back of the pack both times. Still, she makes us go. She cheers. She gets excited.

I thought about her cars in years past: Mr. Pickle and Mr. Pickle 2 – green bulky things with dots painted on for pickle bumps. They barely rolled straight.

And now, Mrs. Squeakers, a grey wedge with wire whiskers that loop up and out, in the most un-aerodynamic way possible, a tail curling up that was supposed to hold a chunk of felted cheese but we had to opt out of that one because it went against the rules.

I was deep in thought, holding the nail. She, with the hammer, reading my mind, She sat up, held Mrs. Squeakers in the palm of her hand, and spoke with the unshakably confident vernacular of Beyonce:

“She so pretty. She so fine.”

And then it clicked.

Her awards the last 2 years: most creative and most jazzy (or something like that). I thought they were consolation prizes, made-up certificates to ensure that everybody wins and no one cries.

Awards that don’t count.

But who decides? And who wears the crown?

Our tire went in crooked. When it spun, it rubbed the wood. Mrs. Squeakers was destined to be slow.

But my daughter held it up, big smile, then a quizzical look as she wiggled a whisker.

“I need some more hot glue.

And off to her room.

Queen Evaline.

… reminding me that the best victories come when we set our own benchmarks.

And the real winners are the ones who can cheer for their creations and cross their own finish lines in ways that others don’t understand.


Dreams And What They Do

I have a dream.

All the greats said that.

I think dreams get a bad rap. They’re usually portrayed as wispy clouds in the sky, nothing you can hold onto, a thing to revere from a distance.

But don’t be fooled by the floating. If you examine a cloud closely, you’ll see that it is, quite surprisingly, holding a shit-ton of water.

Dreams, like clouds, carry more weight than you think. Dreams aren’t light and airy; they’re rich, full, and substantive. They’re everything.

And you’re not a fool for running toward one.

You! You’re also great, sitting there alone, with your focus and your beliefs and your fistful of seeds.

If you run, though it may seem silly, I promise you, you’ll become less and less skeptical that a wispy looking thing from the sky can do anything for you on the ground. You’ll start to feel the rustle of the roots underfoot, sharing their secret, reminiscing of the time before they became trees.

And as you run, you’ll notice that your dream is meeting you halfway. Your dream is coming to the earth, for you, that wispy thing. You arrive out of breath, hands on hips, and it places itself down before you, and you know what to do.

You, the believer. You, the next great thing. You reach your arms around your dream and squeeze, out of love, out of desperation, out of instinct. And the hidden gift comes out: droplets of the clearest, coldest water trickle down your arms, tickle you into aliveness as they fall off your elbows.

You’re so elated you almost forget about the seeds.

You can open your fists now, you’ve earned it. You’ve come all this way to kneel in the puddled soil, so far from the sky, to empty your hands, to take your place in line with the greats as you watch your dream, that wispy thing, spread and thin and become the air we breathe.


Happy Martin Luther King Day. Be great. Run to your dreams.