Sometimes I’m a fool with nothing on my mind. I took a walk in the woods this morning to see what was on my mind and returned home with nothing. Nothing on my mind.
So I picked up the latest issue of Tin House and turned to a poem by Ben Okri, a poet and novelist I had not heard of.
And his poem speaks precisely to what, it turns out, has been on my mind for several weeks if not years: how to listen to your inner fool and to check in with what is most real.
You can check out the video readings & reflections or read the text version.
Here’s part of the poem “More Fishes Than Stars”:
Everyone seems so certain.
And everyone knows who they are.
Everyone’s got a mother and a father.
Everyone knows where they’re going,
And seem so sure they’re going far.
Everyone’s got more friends than they can use,
(And they don’t see how to much can confuse)
Except me, because I’m a fool.
I’m simple as a bee.
But it doesn’t matter,
There are more fishes than stars.
I’m not chasing success.
I’d like to transcend happiness.
And I’m not sure if money is the meaning of life.
Or whether it conquers all strife.
I ain’t been on holiday for some time,
And I don’t think that’s such a crime.
I sit still, like an oak tree on a hill.
Open to the all, like a window in a wall.
But it doesn’t matter,
Because I got to go to the source (of the sea)
Where the mother of things looks after me.
There are more fishes than stars.
More wishes than stars.
Isn’t what Ben Okri writes in his poem what some of us want? A life with a little more wishes and fishes. A life with a little more space in between our activities. A little more space in between our thoughts. A little less rush and a little more hush. A little more space to be wholly a fool in autumn.
That poem reminds me that I’ve been questioning my own striving for more – more income, more work, more exposure, more friends, more happiness. But this striving after more-ness gets boring, frankly, and throws me off-center. And I don’t think it’s very real.
And based on my conversations with clients, colleagues, and friends – several of us are questioning what we’re striving after and whether or not it’s real.
The poem also reminds me of my great if not laughable ambition at age 19 when I was studying in college to be a writer – to be what the Beatles glorified in the song “The Fool on the Hill.” That’s right. I wanted to be that old bearded guy who led a simple life and whose “eyes in his head saw the world spinning ‘round.” (Not exactly what my parents – or my MBA-seeking friends – would’ve have considered a noble ambition.)
I just wanted a life of simplicity but also of meaning and richness inside and out. I suspect I have a long way to go. My life is more complicated and complex with a family and with aging parents, and so I have practical financial matters that I didn’t when I was 19.
But still I keep checking in with that Inner Fool. That impulse that’s at once spontaneous and deeply wise, that voice that questions reality and questions what I’m attached to and striving after.
Consider two of my young adulthood idols: John Lennon and Wendell Berry. John Lennon in the early ‘70s dropped out of the musician’s rat race – and his friends thought he was crazy. And around the same time an up-and-coming poet named Wendell Berry left New York City to live on his father’s farm in Kentucky, where he’s stayed planted ever since. His peers at the time said, “You’re crazy! New York City is the place to be if you want to be a notorious writer.” But both Lennon and Berry did just fine by following their own truth – and they likely became even more notorious for dropping out of conventional reality and checking in with their inner fool’s truth.
They risked appearing like fools.
And whether it’s taking risks to make money or taking risks to follow your own truth or taking risks to do both, sometimes you have to honor your inner fool whose wisdom is often irrational, simple, and deep like a river’s heartbeat.
Wouldn’t life be just a bit more rich if we follow our own truth even if it meant that we appear foolish to our peers?
And by the way, Ben Okri is no fool, really. He grew up in Nigeria, and now the guy is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, one of his first novels earned the top literary prize in the UK, the Booker Prize, and he’s even an Officer of the Order of the British Empire – two titles away from being a knight. I mean, the guy is doing quite well as a fool who has followed his own truth.
I grew up in a tradition where there are simply more dimensions to reality: legends and myths and ancestors and spirits and death. You can’t use Jane Austen to speak about African reality. Which brings the question: what is reality? Everyone’s reality is different. For different perceptions of reality we need a different language. We like to think that the world is rational and precise and exactly how we see it, but something erupts in our reality which makes us sense that there’s more to the fabric of life. I’m fascinated by the mysterious element that runs through our lives. Everyone is looking out of the world through their emotion and history. Nobody has an absolute reality.
True fools question reality. And through wit and simplicity and letting go of striving, true fools help us check in with our deepest truths.
So I offer this invitation: Quiet the king, and listen to what your inner fool has to say.
And Drop in the Hut
What does your true fool say? Do you think I’m a fool for offering this advice? In this dreary economic climate, am I giving an off-note message? I’d love to know what you think, and I’d love to hear your stories about listening – or not – to your inner true fool.
See you in the woods,
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