We all have things that trigger memories of childhood. One of mine is the song of the Swainson’s Thrush. It reminds me of the woods behind the house where I grew up, and especially of summer evenings when the cool air filled with the scents of the forest drifted out across our backyard. High up, the late sun gradually untangled itself from the tops of the maples. You could almost feel the dew forming, the dusk coming on. And then you would hear the ascending spiral of the thrush’s song, a musical question answered someplace else in the forest by a counterpart asking it again.
The recordist, Lang Elliott, points out on the just linked page that because thrushes often sing at dusk, their songs represent “a transition into darkness, a ‘portal’ into the mysteries of the night.” Poetic to be sure, but I would also say accurate to my childhood experience. My brother and I often slept out in a tent in the backyard, with our dog lying down at our feet to protect us and the thrush’s song the last thing heard before going to sleep.
One wonders what it is that makes such a deep impression. Maybe it’s just the small miracle of being totally carried outside of oneself, a reminder that thinking about things is never final. As Lang goes on to say in one of her essays, “With your mind quiet and senses directed outward, you become an un-obstructed point of awareness, a clear witness to creation, free of judgement and noise.”
And perhaps that is the reminder and lesson, that we are so often subject to the deafening noise of our own mental processes that it takes something as intrinsically beautiful as a birdsong to cleave a space in our imagined, worried “realities,” realities that in the end turn out to be not very real at all.
So many of these unrealities do often seem to have their origins in the childhood we carry within us. Bill George, Harvard professor and former head of Medtronic, wrote in a post a couple of years ago:
Many failed leaders seem to lack an awareness of themselves and their actions. Often they do not have a deep understanding of their motivations, and have have not fully accepted their crucibles — fears and failures emanating from earlier experiences, many of which date back to childhood.
Some of us may not want to even remember what happened to us and must listen carefully for opportunities to heal. For some, maybe many, the healing comes in the form of overcoming what we are doing to ourselves in the arena called work and business, through the very process of awakening our own leadership from what has held it down, caused us to fail, or at least not met our own expectations. Bill Stafford saw the problem of childhood “errors” similarly, relating it with a poet’s eye and voice to the broader damage potentially done to our sense of community. He says in one of his most famous and my favorite poems:
For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.
Learning to lead, learning to reclaim community, requires us to remember our true selves, and to overcome those persistent self-betrayals. Some days it seems that most of what I do with my clients — as I do with myself — is try to carry out a kind of “intervention,” the intervention that interrupts the whole game, that incontrovertibly shows that what we think is most true is truly not. And that’s the song, you see, the whistling-upward torrent of notes formed as a question meant to break things open; a sound outside ourselves to remind us of the thing we’ve most forgotten.
Oh yes, the song asks over and over — what about that? I’ll keep asking. I’ll keep asking. What is it you’ve forgotten? What about that?
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