“Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.” (anonymous)             

As I reflect upon the past week, I’m struck by the validity of the age-old adage: ‘We learn as we go.’ It seems no matter where we go, who we encounter, whatever we observe or read, our learning is enhanced by the choices we make – providing we’re open to it.

Some say that choices are what we do between wondering about this, or pondering about that. Take a simple experience such as a haircut, for example. Recently I’d been wondering about a number of things. For instance, now that we’ve moved, where will I find a new barber or hairdresser? Might there be one in the village? And, if so, will they be good with clippers? What about the razor?

Not unlike taking a seat between others on an airplane, slipping into the barber’s chair always carries with it similar anxieties. I suppose it’s about the unknown. Once the clipper and cut plan of action has been determined, there remains the questions of repartee, or not, during the next twenty or thirty minutes. Questions like, what will be the topics of conversation? Who may lead? What do I know, or recall, about the forecast? And, so on.

However, my trepidation subsided quickly as my chatty hairdresser, Lea, simplified things at the outset by launching into the abridged version of her life story. As she regaled her new client with tales of her teenage years, I must confess to fueling her fires of furtherance, by offering the occasional, “yes, I see,” which was often followed by, “then what happened?”

It was during the latter stage of my inaugural cut that I uncovered an incongruence in her unfolding generational saga. It seemed to me that she grew up in one town, however she appeared to have attended high school in another town, which was 40 kilometres south. Hence, my curiosity got the better of me and I asked, “why was that?”

Without hesitation, she shared a peak behind her ‘this is me’ curtain, and replied with a voice of certainty, “I just didn’t fit in.”

I thought that surely this personal revelation warranted a wee bit of probing, and retorted, “why was that?”

“Well,” she replied, “In high school I was interested in the sport of rodeo. Barrel-racing was my thing. And, as it turned out, there were not many, if any, barrel-racing girls in the high school. A school, I might add, that my brothers attended, as did my mother and father. There were just more of my kind, so to speak, in the next town down the line. You know, the rodeo crowd.”

By this time, she was sweeping the hair from my barber’s cape. “You’re to be admired,” I said to her reflection in the mirror. “At such a relatively young age, you made a big-league decision. Looking back, if you had it to do again, would you make the same choice?”

“No question,” she responded, “I’d do it again in a heartbeat. My passion was, and still is, rodeo. I board horses and still barrel race today – even after all these years have passed.” Oddly enough, later the same day I picked up a young adult novel to read.  It was John Green’s newest book, Turtles All the Way Down, his first published work since his bestselling 2012 novel, The Fault in Our Stars.

I use the word ‘oddly’ because I don’t normally choose to read fiction, nor novels focused upon the lives of young adults. However, from a learn-as-you-go standpoint, I believe it’s important to venture, every now and then, outside one’s comfort zone in the choice of books, movies, and experiences.

As I came to learn, it was Green’s first attempt to write directly about the kind of mental illness that has affected his life since childhood. Be that as it may, while his story is fictional, it seemed also very personal to the author and, admittedly, to the reader, as well.

In brief, his story centred around 16-year-old Aza, a high school student living with a host of anxiety disorders, and her search for a fugitive billionaire. I do not wish to spoil someone else’s reading pleasure, so the only other plot details I’ll share are that it contains, either literally or figuratively, Star Wars fanfiction, an unanticipated reunion, values of life, and friendship.

To understand Aza’s ordeal, one should know ‘Turtles all the way down’ is also an expression, underpinned by some fascinating folklore. It’s said that Bertrand Russell, a well-known scientist once delivered an astronomy lecture, whereupon he described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the centre of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. Following his lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room stood up and said, “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.”

Russell gave a smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?”

“You’re a very clever, young man, very clever,” replied the old lady, “But it’s turtles all the way down!”

For Green’s protagonist, Aza, in living daily with her many anxieties, it was turtles all the way down. There was simply no end to her attempt to confront her endless fears, or anxieties, as there was always one more in waiting to be addressed and treated with exotic forms of medication. It became all-consuming for Aza, as her frightening illusions progressively took control of her very being.

Fortunately for Aza, within her dishevelled existence, there was her steadfast friend, Daisy. Since they were children, she took Aza at face-value and countered Aza’s countless neurosis by providing much-needed love, advice, and support. It was not always appreciated by Aza, nor returned, however it did matter, as it countered her ceaseless spiralling with consistently unconditional and genuine friendship.

Without exception, Daisy was there, always, for Aza – all the way down. A true example of living a life of moral leadership.

Shortly after my encounter with my hairdresser and the turtles, another memorable character came into my vista. Somewhat similar to my hairdresser, Mildred Hayes didn’t seem to fit in when it came to living and working in the fictional town of Ebbing, Missouri. And, not unlike Daisy, the friend who stood with Aza’s anxiety all the way down, Mildred exhibited a fierceness of spirit and loyalty to her family seldom seen.

This dark comedy crime film, which we chose to see, is called Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. In brief, Mildred Hayes tragically lost her teen-age daughter, who had been brutally raped and murdered. After seven months had passed without the arrest of a culprit, and driven by her intense anger at a system that fails people, Mildred personally challenges the local authorities to solve this case by purchasing three billboards.

You feel Mildred’s pain and identify with her response to an unfair world that can take your daughter and, at times, be cruel, racist and sexist. And, like the long-time news anchor, in the 1975 movie classic, Network, declared, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,” Mildred Hayes rises up and fights back. And, you discover you’re with her. You feel that challenging the status quo may be the only way comprehension and empathy have any chance, whatsoever, of showing up and levelling the playing field.

So, in summary, from encounters with Lea and Daisy and Mildred, you discover, once again, there is so much to learn about moral leadership in our ever-changing, sometimes complicated, and ever-accelerating world. From an innocent haircut, to scanning the stacks for a unique fictional novel, or losing oneself for one hour and 55 minutes in a movie theatre, the truth doesn’t change and you learn it can be found almost anywhere.