How Discovering Shel Silverstein as an Adult Changed my Life

Hint: I will not mention “The Giving Tree”

Ashwini Sriram
4 min readJul 23, 2020
Photo by Elizabeth Explores on Unsplash

I discovered Shel Silverstein at the ripe age of 28.

I was at Moe’s bookstore in Berkeley and came across Where the Sidewalk Ends. I read a few poems. They were deceptively simple, and grabbed me by the heart. I brought the book home.

I was at a point in my life where I’d just achieved a major life goal — graduating with a masters degree from my dream university. Surprisingly, graduating didn’t make me feel happy or calm. I felt oddly deflated.

That’s when I read The Search.

I went to find the pot of gold
That’s waiting where the rainbow ends.
I searched and searched and searched and searched

In the end, he says

It’s mine, it’s mine, it’s mine at last,
What do I search for now?

No philosophy book or self-help book could have communicated the nature of happiness better. Happiness lies in the search, not in acquiring the “pot of gold”. This poem really spoke to me and helped me figure out my feelings at the time. I have since been trying to be a better searcher.

Here’s another poem called Masks, that sheds light on the human predicament:

She had blue skin,
And so did he.
He kept it hid
And so did she.
They searched for blue
Their whole life through,
Then passed right by,
And never knew.

As adults, our masks can begin to feel like our faces. We hide more and more of who we are as we grow older. This poem encouraged me to show my “blue skin” more. I think about this poem when I have to choose between mask-wearing and blue-skin-showing.

I was brought up in a middle-class Indian family where I heard a lot of “mustn’ts”, “don’ts” and “shouldn’ts”. As a brown, female product manager in a tech company in San Francisco, I definitely hear many “impossibles” and “never haves”. Here’s Shel Silverstein coming to my rescue once again:

Listen to the MUSTN’TS, child,
Listen to the DON’TS
Listen to the SHOULDN’TS
Listen to the NEVER HAVES
Then listen close to me —
Anything can happen, child,
ANYTHING can be.

I go back to this poem when I feel like I’ve hit a dead-end at work or in life. Reading this immediately makes me feel like the possibilities are endless. It makes me think in non-traditional ways about the solutions to my problems.

After all, anything can happen. :)

I have been thinking about skin color a lot these days (who isn’t?). About how profoundly one’s skin color impacts one’s life. About how it reduces some people and elevates others.

Hear what Shel Silverstein has to say, in his poem, Colors from Everything On It.

My skin is kind of sort of brownish
Pinkish yellowish white.
My eyes are greyish blueish green,
But I’m told they look orange in the night.
My hair is reddish blondish brown,
But it’s silver when it’s wet.

And all the colors I am inside
Have not been invented yet.

This. this. this.

I thought about this poem before I went to protest George Floyd’s murder in the hands of a white police officer. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go outside during a pandemic, and be part of a crowd. Remembering these words made me realize that I need to honor all the colors that George was on the inside, and protest the unfairness of these colors being snuffed out in under 10 minutes.

I have recently been discovering the limitations of language itself.

The more I look into words, the more they lose their meaning or absoluteness. The more experiences I have, the more limiting language feels as a tool to describe my internal and external experiences.

Of course, there is the issue of bias in language.

Why is the word “terrorist” used exclusively on criminals of color? Is just the presence of a dragon or a fairy enough to call a book a “fantasy” book?

As a software architect (technical product manager), I often have to articulate the difference between, say, a notification, an event and an alert. The more I focus on the differences, the more I find them vanish.

Understanding this world can be a challenge, even (especially?) as an adult. I find that children’s books are able to explain the vagaries of life and this world better than any “serious” book I’ve read.

I have found wisdom and solace in Shel Silverstein’s words. Hope you do too.

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Ashwini Sriram

Technology leader from Chennai living and writing in San Francisco.