November 19, 2015
A Toast to Silence Along the Jamaican Coast...
For the second night in a row, I hadn’t bolted the door. When I woke up, I had that dizzying feeling you get when you’ve passed through too many airports in a short period of time, wondering where you were and what day it was.
There wasn’t a sound to be heard except for a distant bird’s call that didn’t remotely sound familiar. I tried to put my attention on it so my mind didn’t race off into the land of thought, the ever land of thought that never seems to shut down. What hadn’t I done the day before that still needed my attention and all the things that so often steals precious time away from the serenity that this precious island had to offer.
I was on the very same Caribbean island that I read about for the first time when I was ten, and while I hadn’t heard of Reggae or the Blues yet, the novel painted such a rich picture that I knew the rhythm and beat by heart, so much so that I imagined drums on the ceiling of my bedroom and if anyone ever asked me, I would swear they were real, as if a helicopter dropped them by night and parachuted them away the moment daylight hit.
My imagination couldn’t have been more vivid at the time and dancing colors of multiple rainbows were part of the canvas of life I painted for myself each and every day; it was a beautiful innocent time where stormy grays and dark blacks didn’t exist, not even in my mind’s eye. It was the start of my exploration of music and I so wanted to be the character in that mystery novel I can’t recall the name of, just so I could dance all night and write music all day.
I wanted braids in my hair with bright purple ribbons and to see the sun set so far south of a coast I only knew as bitter and cold. I had finally gotten to Jamaica and while I was far away from that ten year old self, I couldn’t help but wonder where the character in the book had lived and what they were doing now. After all, the character must have been based on someone’s experience a long long time ago and to this day, I’m convinced of it.
The story shaped my musical path and the kinds of destinations I gravitated to for so many years and while part of me longed to dance the night away with purple ribbons woven through soft brunette braids, this journey was to experience a different side of Jamaica….the silent side.
The breeze began to move the wooden shutters in the French doors of my room which led out onto a stone patio which faced a windy Atlantic sea. As they moved, I could see the flickering light of early morning, the sun so much brighter and warmer than what greeted me at home.
Still fatigued by a long year of travel and transition, my groggy state stumbled towards the flickering light and slowly opened the door I forgot to bolt and as I did, the wind grabbed it away from me, blowing it wide open and with it, the other side.
I stood there in my black knickers and turquoise sleeveless top with the lace v-neck top that barely showed a tan line from the day before feeling the warmth on my face, completely aware of how healing it felt. Wiping my eyes, I heard the silence within the silence as I suddenly noticed a flock of tiny little yellowish white butterflies dancing in the sky, eye level between me and the bushes in front of my cottage.
I smiled as wide as a child does every minute of the day. No more racing, I thought. No more activities, I begged. No more to-do’s, asks, demands and bills I wished. Just butterflies, the here and now butterflies before me that were as precious as an unaware newborn.
Like a newborn would, I watched them buzz around the sky as if it were the most magical fairy tale ever seen. I breathed in the sun, gazing from left to right, taking in the lush green tree to my right, the crashing waves up against the rocks ahead of me and the bright pink bourgainvillea flowers that lay scattered around the gardens. They were everywhere in Jamaica and I never grew tired of seeing them.
The beach area to my right and left was known as Treasure Beach in the St. Elizabeth Parrish, one of 14 on the island. It is called the "Bread Basket" of Jamaica in that it is most known for its farming and fishing, and provides 80% of the agriculture in Jamaica. The grass and trees were lush and green for unlike the dry arid California that continued to face a drought, rain wasn’t a stranger to this land.
The rains often hit during the afternoons in the Fall and so mornings were typically glorious, loaded with sunshine, happy birds and dancing butterflies.
Not in the mood to open a laptop or cell phone, I looked around the room for something to bring with me to the Adirondack chair on the patio since I was oh so not ready to face other people’s voices just yet.
There were two fashion magazines on my bedside table and a Holy Bible underneath the night stand, something provided by the property. I realized at that moment that I hadn’t picked up a bible in at least a couple of decades and so with a curious but wry smile on my face, I grabbed it and slowly made my way outside.
While I do believe in God, I'm equally able to connect with atheists and agnostics for the simple reason that I believe that religion and religious dogma is the root of so much pain and destruction in the world, which has resulted in more division than unity. I probably subscribe to more of a Buddhist’s view of the world than anything else perhaps and within that context, I now see the bible as a fascinating book with poetic writing that can provide masterful insights into the mind of mankind and the instincts that drive his or her ego.
I read a few passages from Matthew and while beautifully written, I felt they didn’t provide as much guidance to someone lost or in need as Pema Chodron or Ken Wilbur does, at least for me. Lost in pure reflection, I closed my eyes as I felt the sun quickly heat up as early morning made its journey to mid-morning.
The sounds began to change, as simple as the pace of the wind and the waves which continued to crash upon the shore. Jamaica is the kind of place that makes it easy to believe in God or if you really can't go there, then a Universe that will provide exactly what you need when your heart is open to receive.
As I opened my eyes, fearful if I didn’t my mind would start racing on all the things that made me a slave to life rather than me creating one, I saw once again the dancing butterflies buzzing around, unaware of time and likely unaware of thought itself. I wanted to be that butterfly, full of so much energy and beauty, knowing that it brings the same pure smile to a baby as it would a 90 year old man, and even more importantly, for the same reason.
I wondered if butterflies knew that when they finally blossomed from their caterpillar state that they had such a short life to live and in that knowing, they focused on happiness and joy through the only ways they knew how…. by dancing lightly and freely through the air. Or, like the character in my Jamaican novel, did the butterfly not realize how short its life would be but simply decided to focus on painting a new canvas of life each and every day, one that would bring them and others around them pure joy?
For my Jamaican character, it was writing music and playing drums and for the Jamaican butterflies before my eyes on that beautiful morning, it was dancing through the sky as if thought didn’t exist and never would.
Perhaps my two Jamaican experiences would overlap after all, the fictional fairytale I had only known as a child and the real one that was as memorable and precious as the story, but rather than a life filled with music, it was also filled with silence. Both were equally perfect and both swept me away into a different land, where there was no time or space for thought, but only smiles, laughter and peace.
"The World Surrenders to a Silent Mind" -- Lao Tzu
That’s what life is like when you’re truly present I reminded myself, whether it’s a storybook character or a butterfly or you shedding your own wings, ready to fly away.
I nodded in gratitude to the Jamaica before me, the silent one, the one full of soft ocean breezes, dancing butterflies and Caribbean trees. I raised my hand to the sky, as if holding a glass of wine to make a toast.
“To Silence,” I said to the swarm of Jamaican-born butterflies, so unaware of the impact they had on me on one morning in their short lives. In return, they continued to dance before me as my smile got wider and wider. And then, I went back to that innocent and precious dream where butterflies, clouds, skies, fields of grass and music were all one.
Photo credit for butterfly dream image: www.photoshopcreative.co.uk.
July 13, 2010
Jeff Bezos: We Are What We ChooseThe below is a moving and inspirational talk that Jeff Bezos made to the Princeton University Class of 2010 at the end of May -- reposted from the Princeton website.
I particularly love his reference to the difference between gifts and choices. Cleverness is a gift, kindness is a choice.
Read Jeff's speech below in its entirety: "We are What We Choose."
As a kid, I spent my summers with my grandparents on their ranch in Texas. I helped fix windmills, vaccinate cattle, and do other chores. We also watched soap operas every afternoon, especially "Days of our Lives." My grandparents belonged to a Caravan Club, a group of Airstream trailer owners who travel together around the U.S. and Canada. And every few summers, we'd join the caravan. We'd hitch up the Airstream trailer to my grandfather's car, and off we'd go, in a line with 300 other Airstream adventurers.
I loved and worshipped my grandparents and I really looked forward to these trips. On one particular trip, I was about 10 years old. I was rolling around in the big bench seat in the back of the car. My grandfather was driving. And my grandmother had the passenger seat. She smoked throughout these trips, and I hated the smell.
At that age, I'd take any excuse to make estimates and do minor arithmetic. I'd calculate our gas mileage -- figure out useless statistics on things like grocery spending. I'd been hearing an ad campaign about smoking. I can't remember the details, but basically the ad said, every puff of a cigarette takes some number of minutes off of your life: I think it might have been two minutes per puff.
At any rate, I decided to do the math for my grandmother. I estimated the number of cigarettes per days, estimated the number of puffs per cigarette and so on. When I was satisfied that I'd come up with a reasonable number, I poked my head into the front of the car, tapped my grandmother on the shoulder, and proudly proclaimed, "At two minutes per puff, you've taken nine years off your life!"
I have a vivid memory of what happened, and it was not what I expected. I expected to be applauded for my cleverness and arithmetic skills. "Jeff, you're so smart. You had to have made some tricky estimates, figure out the number of minutes in a year and do some division." That's not what happened. Instead, my grandmother burst into tears. I sat in the backseat and did not know what to do. While my grandmother sat crying, my grandfather, who had been driving in silence, pulled over onto the shoulder of the highway. He got out of the car and came around and opened my door and waited for me to follow. Was I in trouble? My grandfather was a highly intelligent, quiet man.
He had never said a harsh word to me, and maybe this was to be the first time? Or maybe he would ask that I get back in the car and apologize to my grandmother. I had no experience in this realm with my grandparents and no way to gauge what the consequences might be. We stopped beside the trailer. My grandfather looked at me, and after a bit of silence, he gently and calmly said, "Jeff, one day you'll understand that it's harder to be kind than clever."
What I want to talk to you about today is the difference between gifts and choices. Cleverness is a gift, kindness is a choice. Gifts are easy -- they're given after all. Choices can be hard. You can seduce yourself with your gifts if you're not careful, and if you do, it'll probably be to the detriment of your choices.
This is a group with many gifts. I'm sure one of your gifts is the gift of a smart and capable brain. I'm confident that's the case because admission is competitive and if there weren't some signs that you're clever, the dean of admission wouldn't have let you in.
Your smarts will come in handy because you will travel in a land of marvels. We humans -- plodding as we are -- will astonish ourselves. We'll invent ways to generate clean energy and a lot of it. Atom by atom, we'll assemble tiny machines that will enter cell walls and make repairs.
This month comes the extraordinary but also inevitable news that we've synthesized life. In the coming years, we'll not only synthesize it, but we'll engineer it to specifications. I believe you'll even see us understand the human brain. Jules Verne, Mark Twain, Galileo, Newton -- all the curious from the ages would have wanted to be alive most of all right now. As a civilization, we will have so many gifts, just as you as individuals have so many individual gifts as you sit before me.
How will you use these gifts? And will you take pride in your gifts or pride in your choices?
I got the idea to start Amazon 16 years ago. I came across the fact that Web usage was growing at 2,300 percent per year. I'd never seen or heard of anything that grew that fast, and the idea of building an online bookstore with millions of titles -- something that simply couldn't exist in the physical world -- was very exciting to me. I had just turned 30 years old, and I'd been married for a year.
I told my wife MacKenzie that I wanted to quit my job and go do this crazy thing that probably wouldn't work since most startups don't, and I wasn't sure what would happen after that. MacKenzie (also a Princeton grad and sitting here in the second row) told me I should go for it. As a young boy, I'd been a garage inventor. I'd invented an automatic gate closer out of cement-filled tires, a solar cooker that didn't work very well out of an umbrella and tinfoil, baking-pan alarms to entrap my siblings. I'd always wanted to be an inventor, and she wanted me to follow my passion.
I was working at a financial firm in New York City with a bunch of very smart people, and I had a brilliant boss that I much admired. I went to my boss and told him I wanted to start a company selling books on the Internet. He took me on a long walk in Central Park, listened carefully to me, and finally said, "That sounds like a really good idea, but it would be an even better idea for someone who didn't already have a good job."
That logic made some sense to me, and he convinced me to think about it for 48 hours before making a final decision. Seen in that light, it really was a difficult choice, but ultimately, I decided I had to give it a shot. I didn't think I'd regret trying and failing. And I suspected I would always be haunted by a decision to not try at all. After much consideration, I took the less safe path to follow my passion, and I'm proud of that choice.
Tomorrow, in a very real sense, your life -- the life you author from scratch on your own -- begins.
How will you use your gifts? What choices will you make?
Will inertia be your guide, or will you follow your passions?
Will you follow dogma, or will you be original?
Will you choose a life of ease, or a life of service and adventure?
Will you wilt under criticism, or will you follow your convictions?
Will you bluff it out when you're wrong, or will you apologize?
Will you guard your heart against rejection, or will you act when you fall in love?
Will you play it safe, or will you be a little bit swashbuckling?
When it's tough, will you give up, or will you be relentless?
Will you be a cynic, or will you be a builder?
Will you be clever at the expense of others, or will you be kind?
I will hazard a prediction. When you are 80 years old, and in a quiet moment of reflection narrating for only yourself the most personal version of your life story, the telling that will be most compact and meaningful will be the series of choices you have made. In the end, we are our choices. Build yourself a great story. Thank you and good luck!