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?


RSS and email sub­scrip­tion, month­ly Unfold­ing Lead­er­ship newslet­ter, search and oth­er func­tions may be found at the “Fur­ther Infor­ma­tion” tab at the bot­tom of this page.


  • 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

Leave a Reply

Your email is never shared.Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.