Song of Childhood

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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  • Hoda Maalouf (@MaaHoda) wrote:

    Dear Dan,

    When I recently decided to write about my personal experiences, I was told “Hoda, this is not what you do; this is not your expertise”. My answer was I need to clarify things in my life, issues & feelings that affected me strongly but I‘ve neglected for years. When I write about it, I can focus, forget mundane distractions.

    Going back to childhood issues, I can say I was “lucky” that the civil war started in my country when I was 10 and Not earlier. Lucky in the sense that I had the chance to have a normal, happy childhood. These 1st 10 years of my life had a great impact on my personality, my positive attitude, love of people & love of life.

    I love nature, but it was never my “thing”, I’m more into people, sounds & pictures. I could for instance remember the sound of the BBC World Service at 6 am that dad used to listen to every single morning. That was our wake up sound. There are some TV programs that I used to watch as a child and I could never forget, like the “Big Valley” & “I dream of Jennie”. And, I can never forget the 7 pm evening bells of a neighboring monastery chapel that we used to call (& truly believed) “Time to sleep Bell”.

    Thank You for writing this beautiful post!


  • Dear Dan,

    Every time you post a blog you take us on a journey.

    A journey of contemplation and completeness.

    Life is as you say, that we are so often subject to the deafening noise of our own mental processes

    How true and how important to be awareness of this….

    We need what you do in the world.
    Your gift is so valuable, what you do with your clients, what you share with us, you are the magic, you are the answer, your words make us not feel so alone.

    Thanks for sharing as always you impact my life.


  • Another beautiful, contemplative piece Dan.

    As you recounted your memory of sleeping in the backyard with your brother, I was reminded of doing similar with my own. Camping was one of the few pleasures I enjoyed in childhood and when we weren’t camping, my brothers and I would take advantage of the summer heat and sleep outdoors in our own backyard. Sometimes we would sleep in sleeping bags on cots and just stare up into the night sky counting stars. Wondering in awe over the mysteries of the Milky Way. And giggle with excitement whenever we spotted a shooting star.

    Memories like those were a welcome reprieve to the other parts of my life. So thank you for bringing back such a wonderful memory. Made even more poignant with the bird song playing in the background. : )

    Yes, the mind grows tired of ‘the deafening noise of our own mental processes.’ It’s quite exhausting without some sort of interruption or reprieve. Not only over our own ruminations of the past, the future, or what may be going on in the present. Yet also because we are constantly inundated with information. Especially when it comes to infinite access to it over the internet. The mind truly needs time to detach and break from ALL the noise on a regular basis. Sometimes every fiber of my being will cry out with a STOP! No more! When it’s time for me to not read another word or think another thought over something. Anything I happen to be engrossed in at the time.

    Childhood is very much linked to our present. Whether we like it or not. Whether we admit or not. One of the areas that I have studied is on the subject of self-parenting and although it is still a common idea to keep work and personal life separate. It really never is. We carry the same child in our adult bodies into the work place. Even if we are unconscious to it all. The same child inside of us that may have been terrified of authority figures as a child will still feel fear of authority figures as an adult if those issues haven’t been laid to rest.

    Anything unresolved in childhood will continue to play itself out again in our professional and personal lives until we consciously tend to them.

    Thank you so much for sharing another enlightening and simultaneously soothing post. Loved the birdsong. A quietly pleasant retreat this morning.


  • Dear Hoda

    I feel very graced by your shared stories, Hoda. I would say it is what you do, and we are all the luckier for it.

    There’s something about the sharing of the early stories, the ones that start the larger story of our lives, that reflect in a pure way how we constructed and continue to construct our worlds. For you, it seems to me, the war in your country, despite it’s terrible and devastating effects, could not erode the core vitality of your spirit. It couldn’t steal you, although I know it was a dark time. Your memories, including those “time to sleep” bells, is part of the powerful spirit you held underneath.

    Thank you so much for sharing here!


  • Dear Lolly

    The beauty is that we can all impact one another in life-giving ways. You, too, are the magic, the answer, the antidote to loneliness. Your leadership — coming through your example as a person — is a most powerful affirmation of the human heart that is all too easily lost to the useless fears to which we subject ourselves. You remind people of where they can stand up in life.

    Thank you so much for the affirmation of your comment, Lolly, one I know is loving, and generous, and genuine.


  • Dear Samantha

    I loved the expansion of those camping memories. Mostly we used a tent, but a time or two, it was just the sleeping bag on a low cot, and yes the stars were miraculous.

    I believe it is vital to remember these moments, but also to be open to creating new ones, letting nature back in, letting silence back in, letting the sound beyond our own voice back in.

    How lovely it is to share this post with you, Samantha, because I know you understand the need for resolution as part of the felt imperatives of healing.

    In writing this post I am really harkening back to a central insight I received twenty some years ago — that I am not the “coach.” I am not the “change agent.” Change is an effect of experiencing true silence, timelessness, beauty, love. Such qualities open the windows first, and then open the doors. If they come through some conversation I’ve had, I’m graced by that and humbled to be a channel.


  • Your last paragraph is somewhat similar to my next post in my ‘truth’ series.

    From my Burden of Truth post:

    ‘I hope to reveal the idea that our interactions with one another are, by their very nature, a necessary alchemy that lies at the heart of transformation.’

    In a way, our ‘being’ is the catalyst by it’s very nature. However minute our life force is in the grand scheme of things, it still exerts a force of impact on our surroundings. Like the pebble tossed into a pond. The ripples that radiate out from the center of impact.

    Not only do we each have an impact on one another, I have the sense that each interaction we have is like the coming together of two substances (as in Chemistry). There’s going to be a reaction as two people come together. Sometimes favorably. Other times not so much. Regardless, the ‘reaction’ has the capacity to change both. To elicit some sort of transformation.

    For those in the coaching field, yes, it’s more a matter of being a vessel of conscious presence that helps guide and facilitate the awakening process in another. In whatever way that is needed.

    While simultaneously, both coach AND client learn together from the interaction. 🙂

    Thanks again for another wonderful post.

  • Dear Dan,
    I love the analogy of an intervention. A simple break in thoughts/habits that allow awareness to fade into our consciousness and unlimited growth to truly materialize.

    Wonderful post.

  • Dan.
    This is quite possibly the most beautiful thing I have ever read in a post. Thank you, sir. You gave me so much to ponder and unravel inside myself.

  • Samantha-

    I can’t wait to read your new post — it sounds wonderful.

    Every dialogue has the potential to foster the realization of those involved. In smaller or larger shock waves, true exchange enables the essential process, which is “seeing through.” Once something has been seen through to its core, the illusions that surround it can dissolve. But this is not a one-sided affair. We all constantly in the process of peeling our own onions, even in the midst of helping others.

    Perhaps you’ve heard of the West African tribe that believes each person has a vocation given to them before birth. However, in the process of being born into the world, the child “forgets” what this is. So the tribe conducts rituals with the mother before a baby’s birth to find out what that person’s purpose is in the world. And then it is up to the tribe after the child’s birth to help remind the person of their true calling.

    Just so, no one reaches their destiny alone.

    Thank you, again, Samantha for your fabulous observations!


  • Dear Kate

    You’ve said it perfectly: “A simple break in thoughts/habits that allow awareness to fade into our consciousness and unlimited growth to materialize.” This is such a beautiful way of unpacking the power of insight. Thank you so much for sharing your incomparable ability to “get the essence!”

    All the best

  • Dear Amber-Lee

    Thank you so much — such a great compliment! And of course, that must also be a reflection of what is already within yourself, waiting to be unraveled! Much appreciation to you.

    Many best wishes

  • Thanks Dan… this is lovely.

    I think those joy-filled echoes from the past are just tell-tale signs of what we all would see if we could begin to doubt the testimony of the witnesses that past perceptions haul before the Judge called ‘me’.

    “Listen! Perhaps you catch a hint of an ancient state not quite forgotten; dim, perhaps, and yet not altogether unfamiliar, like a song whose name is long forgotten, and the circumstances in which you heard completely unremembered. Not the whole song has stayed with you, but just a little wisp of melody, attached not to a person or a place or anything particular. But you remember, from just this little part, how lovely was the song, how wonderful the setting where you heard it, and how you loved those who were there and listened with you.

    The notes are nothing. Yet you have kept them with you, not for themselves, but as a soft reminder of what would make you weep if you remembered how dear it was to you. You could remember, yet you are afraid, believing you would lose the world you learned since then. And yet you know that nothing in the world you learned is half so dear as this. Listen, and see if you remember an ancient song you knew so long ago and held more dear than any melody you taught yourself to cherish since.” A Course in Miracles

  • Dear Nick

    Such a gorgeous quotation from the Course to answer the question, “What have you forgotten?” A friend once called it the experience of one’s birthright, here spoken of as the soft spot that makes us weep for an unremembered rapture.

    What a beautiful response, Nick. A call in the forest and an answer! One knows that bird by its call even if it keeps itself well hidden by the leaves.

    Best not bother with the court of an imposter Judge.

    All the best

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