What Does a Monkey Know? (On This Road)

I continued to travel toward the East, confident I could make progress and eventually arrive.

I tried a number of paths off the main road, but they all led to dead ends or circled back toward the West.

The problem was that the main road I was on eventually narrowed to no more than a footpath, across which a spider had built an enormous web. I do not like spiders, and there was no way around, so I backtracked to find another path that led East.

There was none. Every path lead to a dead-end or circled back toward the West.

And so I came at last, all other routes exhausted, to stand before the spider web that crossed the path I needed to travel. A monkey sat nearby, to the left of the web.

I looked beside the path to see if I could edge around the web. The trees and underbrush were thick. “You can’t go that way,” a voice said.

I looked around. There was only me, the small spider on the web, and the monkey, who looked like she was asleep.

I looked at the spider. “She will kill you,” said the voice from the left.

I looked at the monkey. She still sat with her eyes closed.

“I need to get around this web,” I said to the monkey. She did not respond. “There has to be a way around it.”

The monkey opened her eyes and looked at me. “You can’t go around it,” said the monkey, “and if you get close to the spider, she will kill you.”

I was surprised the monkey was so insistent that the spider was deadly. The spider just looked like a common garden spider.

“I am going to get around this web,” I said to the monkey. “Will you help me?”

“The spider will kill you,” said the monkey.

“I’m beginning to think you aren’t very smart,” I replied.

I continued to try to find a way around the narrow spot in the road to circumvent the spider and its web. “You can’t go that way,” the monkey said periodically.

I tried to squeeze through some trees on the right. “You can’t go…”

“SHUT UP!” I screamed.

I glared at the monkey as I untangled myself from the trees.

I looked at the web and realized there was some clearance near the ground. I could shimmy under the web and hopefully not disturb the spider.

I approached the web and started to crawl. “The spider will kill you,” said the monkey.

I continued to crawl, my head going under the web.

“The spider will KILL you,” the monkey said again.

I continued to crawl, my shoulders clearing the web.

“The SPIDER will KILL YOU,” the monkey said.

I pulled my legs out from under the web, standing up on the other side.



“The spider is on you,” the monkey almost whispered. “The spider will kill you.”

I looked at the web. The spider was not there.

I took my jacket off and shook it vigorously, hoping that if the spider was on it, she would fall off. I rubbed my hands through my hair, down my arms and chest and legs, and across my shoulders and lower back, hoping to dislodge the spider. Nothing fell off me. I started to think the monkey was trying to trick me.

“The spider is on you,” the monkey said with sadness in her voice.

“The spider is NOT on me,” I told the monkey, slapping my jacket across my back to make sure. “She probably just climbed up one of these trees because of all your screaming.”

“The spider will kill you,” the monkey lamented.

I shook my head and began to travel the road beyond the web. I had cleared one of the biggest obstacles on my travel to the East, and I wasn’t going to let the monkey discourage me.

What does a monkey know, anyway?

Posted in Metaphor, On This Road

How Do I Walk with Them? (On This Road)

My travels on this road take me to places light and dark, always with the hope of making it to a place of plenty, a place of happiness, a place of peace. Still, that place, if it exists, seems always out of reach.

Instead, I find myself traveling with people who are happy and sad, hopeful and despairing, courageous and fearful. Some of the people I walk with seem easier to travel with than others. Sometimes we walk together for quite some time; other times I can barely stand to walk one mile with them.

I decided that my attitude toward my fellow travelers was poor; I wanted to learn to walk with and enjoy the company of more and more people. I wondered how I might accomplish this.

I decided I would treat everyone the same – like their attitudes and feelings didn’t matter. When a fellow traveler was sad, I ignored their feelings and remarked on the pleasantness of the day; when another was angry, I asked them what their favorite food was. When another was happy, I never asked why.

This decision left me without many traveling companions. So I changed my tactic.

I decided I would treat everyone as if they were me – like I understood their experiences completely. When one was happy, I told her I was glad, but that she should enjoy it while it lasts. To the next who was angry, I told him that he was going to make bad decisions if he let his emotions take charge. To the next who was sad, I suggested she look on the bright side of life – that there is always something to be happy about.

Again, I was left with few traveling companions.

I did not know what to do.

I sat by the side of the road, tired and thirsty and alone, and watched my fellow travelers as they walked by. I noticed a gurgling sound behind me. Water was flowing out of the side of a small boulder. I dipped my hands in the water from the rock; it was cool and clean. I drank some of the water and splashed some on my hot head.

When I turned back toward the road, I could…the only thing that makes sense is that I could…see through?…see into?…my fellow travelers. Most of them were adults, fully grown…but I could see through or into them, to a child inside. Every single person, young or old, had a child inside, maybe three or four years old.

I began to speak to the child inside a man who was walking by. I greeted him like I would have greeted my friend when I was younger: “Hi! Wanna walk together?” His eyes widened, and he looked behind himself briefly. “Yeah,” he said.

We walked together for a while. When he got angry about tripping on the road, I talked to the child inside him: “Tripping hurts. I’m sorry that happened.” His frown faded, “Yeah, it does. I’ll be okay, though.” We kept walking.

I wondered what it would be like to speak to my fellow travelers, acknowledging the child inside them all.

I wondered if my vision would fade and I would forget to treat people like they are doing the best they can.

I wondered if all of us just need someone to listen and respond to the child inside. I wonder if that’s the secret to walking with anyone.

Posted in Metaphor, On This Road

How Do I Get Where I Want to Go? (On This Road)

My traveling companions and I continued walking, taking all the turns that we believed would take us to the brilliant, safe, peaceful land in the East.

Some other travelers told us we were taking the wrong paths, heading in the wrong direction; others encouraged us and even traveled with us for a while.

But no matter how long we walked, how certain we were that we were making good progress, the shining East always seemed far away, and the dark West always seemed close and looming.

Despite our apparent lack of progress, my friends and I kept walking, kept encouraging one another.

One morning, as the sun was rising, I saw a vision; or maybe the sun in the East spoke to me; or maybe it was just a dream. The road around me filled with a warm glow. A calm silence fell over my world. I felt like what I imagine it feels like to be in the East – grounded, at peace, free.

A voice welled up from all around me, or maybe from inside me. It was a quiet voice, something like a whisper or a breath, but with the resonance of thunder.

The voice said, “You are here.

I had no idea what that meant. Of course I am here; what was astounding was that the warm voice of…whatever…the East?…was also here.

I did not know what to say.

“How do I get to the East?” I asked, hoping maybe for a sure route, or even a shortcut.

You bring the East with you.

That didn’t make sense, because I could see the East off in the distance, and feel the darkness of the West over my shoulder, threatening.

“My friends and I want to make it to the East to be safe and happy. We want to avoid going West because it is dangerous and dark.”

The voice did not respond, but the feeling of the East stayed with me for a while. I don’t know when or how it wore off. But as my friends started waking for our day’s travel, I couldn’t help but feel the East in their faces and their presence.

I decided I wanted to share that same feeling, be that same presence, with the people I met on this road.

Posted in Metaphor, On This Road

Which Way Do I Go? (On This Road)

I continued walking and other paths began to intersect with my path. I met people traveling these paths.

Some people walked with me on my path for a while. We traveled together; we enjoyed each other’s company; we ate together; we kept each other safe at night. These people became my traveling companions. Sometimes we would walk together for days. Sometimes our paths would only intersect for a few hours. I cherished each companion for as long as we traveled together and never forgot one after our paths diverged.

As we traveled together, we noticed that the land far to the east was lush with vegetation and partitioned by meandering streams. The land in the distance to the west seemed perpetually overcast, even during the day, and dotted with skeletal trees and little shelter. My companions and I decided to try to travel to the land to the east. We could make a home there, find food there, live in peace there.

Some people crossed paths with me and my companions and told us we were going the wrong way.

“You should seek the land to the east!” one exclaimed. “Anyone trying to go west cannot be a good and sane person!”

“My friends and I are trying to go east,” I explained. “Are we going the wrong direction?”

“You are!” the stranger warned. “The path you are on will take you west!”

We thanked the stranger and turned around. After only a few minutes, another stranger yelled at us, “Monsters! You are headed toward the dark land!”

“We were told this is the path that leads to the east,” I explained, trying to calm the situation.

“You are wrong! You are trying to trick me! I will not follow you!” the stranger bellowed, running off in the direction we had just come from.

How are we to know how to go east if no matter which way we go we are told we are wrong?

My companions and I decided to do our best to head in the direction of the place we wanted to go.

Original Photo by Alan Heardman

Posted in Metaphor, On This Road

What’s This All About? (On This Road)

I sit down on a rock and massage my aching feet. I’ve been walking for quite a long time. In fact, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t walking.

The path in front of me turns sharply around a curve on the mountain so I can only see a few yards ahead.

The path behind is partially visible, winding down the mountain. Some parts of the path cross lush fields and bridge bubbling streams. Some parts of the path get lost beneath dark woods and craggy fissures.

I can’t remember why I’m walking. As far as I know, walking is all I have ever done. I’ve never stopped to consider why I’m walking or where I’m going.

What is this path I’m on? Is it leading somewhere? Well, of course it is – all paths lead somewhere, even if the end of the path is not a place you would want to go. Still, the path leads somewhere, so I’m going somewhere, even if I don’t know where that is. But do I want to go there?

Why am I walking? Was I told to go somewhere? Do I have a goal in mind, or am I just enjoying a walk? Would I walk without having a destination? That seems quite normal – to walk without destination – as long as that is the plan. But what is my plan? It’s a giant waste of time to walk without a destination if you’re trying to get somewhere.

As far as I know, nobody started me on this path. I’ve just been walking it. I don’t really know where I’m going or why I’m walking. Maybe as I walk I can figure out where I want to go and what it means to walk this path.

My feet feel ready to go again, so I stand. I am unsure of my destination, but I’m certain it is not the middle of this road.



Posted in Metaphor, On This Road

Have the Best Life No Matter What

My son Nathan, like all of us, wants more control in his life.

Nathan is in elementary school. Sometimes his classmates do elementary-school-kid things, you know, like saying the same word over and over again, or tapping on Nathan’s chair without end. Nathan asks them to stop doing such childish things, but often they keep on doing whatever they’re doing. Sometimes Nathan comes home frustrated because of the lack of control he feels in his life.

When Nathan comes home frustrated, sometimes he has a pretty short fuse. One perceived slight from his brother or his parents and his face turns red with fury. He exclaims that he feels like we’re all trying to drive him crazy, that we’re all out to get him, that we’re trying to make him mad.

I feel like that myself sometimes. Sometimes it feels like everyone is only concerned for themselves, and that they at best ignore me and at worst actively try to frustrate me.

My wife explained to Nathan (and because of my eavesdropping, to me) that she knows how to have the best life, no matter what people do around you. She said that if we do this one thing, then all of our relationships will get better, that we will be happier all the time, and that we won’t feel like people are just trying to drive us crazy.

Nathan and I were both listening breathlessly.

Amy said that, to have the best life, the best relationships, and the best level of happiness, do just one thing:

Believe that people have good intentions and that they are doing the best they can.

If we believe that people have good intentions, the irritating kid that keeps tapping on our chair becomes the bouncy friend who is just trying to have a good time. Maybe he doesn’t have a brother or sister to play with at home, so he really wants to play with…well, anyone.

If we believe that people are doing the best they can, the woman who’s driving like a bat out of hell and cut me off becomes the woman who had to scramble this morning because her alarm didn’t go off. I’ve had mornings like that.

If we believe people have good intentions and are doing the best they can, everyone becomes not an irritating jerk we don’t want to be around, but a person we can relate to. They transform from a selfish, no-good so-and-so to a person with whom we can sympathize, who we can relate to, who is an awful lot like us.

Suddenly the world is not out to get us. Suddenly we have escaped the imagined hounds pursuing us. Suddenly we are free.

May we treat our neighbors like they have good intentions and they’re doing the best they can, and may we relax into the peace we will have created for themselves and for us.

Posted in Insight

May Your Bookshelves Fall Down

We have a lot of books. A lot. And this is after years of whittling down our collection to the books we really like. It’s still a lot of books.

To accommodate all of these books, I installed some shelving in a corner in our living room, kind of up high but still accessible. We were planning on putting some of our many books on these shelves, so I was certain to find the studs in the walls to secure the braces to, so that they could hold the maximum amount of weight.

And boy, did we test their limits.

This week, while no one was around, the shelves on one side of the corner came crashing down. Based on the end result, we theorize that the top shelf fell first, the screws coming loose from the wall (apparently they weren’t long enough to really hold in the stud). The weight of the top shelf and all of its books overloaded the middle shelf, which also pulled free from the wall and fell. The bottom shelf attempted to bear the weight of 3 times its normal load, and it did well, until the metal brace gave way, resulting in a bent metal braces. All of the books on that side fell to the floor.

We had some highly breakable items on those shelves in addition to the books, treasured because of their meaning rather than their value. All of them survived, save one. The one that was damage can be repaired, though.

So, this week, our bookshelves fell down. It made a mess, destroyed my perfectly tuned book organizational system by category and perfect alphabetization, and left a few holes in the wall.

We decided to rebuild. We bought longer screws to ensure our shelves were firmly attached to the studs. We bought new metal braces to replace the bent ones. We also decided to reduce the number of books on those shelves, getting rid of about a quarter of them, and storing another quarter in a separate area.

Now, our shelves are lighter, stronger, and more visually appealing. We’re really happy with how our shelves turned out, but we never would have gotten to that chore, or done it as well, had our shelves not come tumbling down.

Sometimes shelves fall. It makes a big mess and creates more work for you. But fallen shelves also give us the opportunity to make things better than they were before, to reinforce what needs to be reinforced and to shed the weight that is holding us down. And our lives can be better because of it.

So may your bookshelves fall.
May you find the places that need to be shored up.
May you discard what no longer serves you.
And may your bookshelves be better than ever.

Posted in Metaphor