Live like you are going die?

The worst piece of advice I ever received was to live like I was dying.

The timing was bad. My father was, in fact, dying and doing it rather quickly. Cancer was tearing through his body, leaving his doctors and my mother baffled by its virulence.

I was grown, with small children of my own, keeping a stiff upper lip for all. The “live every moment as if it was your last” verbiage didn’t sink in until after his funeral, and then it engulfed me so completely that instead of grieving, I stopped being a reasonable person.

Somewhere, deep inside, I now understood I was going to die. It was a fact I’d heard before, of course, but until it happened to my dad, I guess I didn’t really believe it. Didn’t get it would happen to me.

Then, with my father no longer standing between me and eternity, every minute was precious. It wasn’t precious in a “thank-you-universe” kind of way. It was more like a for-god-sake-how-long-am-I-going-to-have-to-stand-in-this-grocery-line-while-you-pull-out-your-damn-coupons kind of way. It was a move-your-car-so-I-can-make-this-stupid-light kind of way. I had things to do and life to experience and now that I understood I didn’t have forever, I didn’t want to waste a minute of what I did have putting up with anyone’s shit.

I was miserable, and I was miserable to be around. It was no way to live.

This lasted for awhile and then I got tired of it. I mostly forgot about the fact that I was going to die, because we’re just not wired to hang on to that sort of thing. I went back to normal, wasting time and letting other people waste my time and usually not getting upset about it.

Much later, I would realize this had been by own way of grieving, and a few tears would finally come. I would find ways to celebrate my dad, and to enjoy my own life more.

I’m pulling out my passport for a trip I will take soon. I’m headed to Machu Picchu, a place I’ve always wanted to go. A closer look at my documents shows that in the past couple of years I’ve been to Portugal, Morocco, and Kenya. I imagine a customs official looking at me and asking “Did you win the lottery? Or are you dying?”

No, I haven’t won the lottery and even with budget travel I’m risking insufficient funds later in exchange for grabbing opportunities now. That’s an equation requiring balance, and I know I’m leaning to one side. I don’t intend to lean too far, but I’m okay with the imbalance.

You see, I am dying. Not any faster than anyone else, as far as I know, but I accept that my time is a limited resource.  I’ve decided to do the things I really want to do now.

During one of the last exchanges I had with my dad, he told me he wished he’d gotten more time, but he was grateful for all the moments he had. All the things he did. “It was a great life,” he declared and even as I heard him say it I thought I want to be able to say that, too.

Which is why this year I’m going to Peru, and participating in at least three other interesting things that matter to me and I’ve not made time for. Yet.

Because, of course, it isn’t about going places. It’s about having the time of your life. I realize having the time of my life is something I should have been doing all along, but it’s never too late to start. I’m thinking of what I might add in 2019.

You see, the best piece of advice I ever received was to live like I was dying.

(For more thoughts on how to use one’s time with wisdom see Spending time.)

 

 

The year of la sonrisa

Do you have a word for the year ahead? I never have, but I’ve made some new acquaintances who do this and, of course, it got me thinking. They’ve pegged 2018 as their year for spontaneity and courage, respectively. Great concepts, both of them, but my hopes for 2018 felt too complicated to be encapsulated in a mere word.

But they weren’t.

You know how words sometimes just pop into your head? Well, January 1, there it was. Sonrisa, a Spanish word I loved when I first learned it. It’s sound and spelling made me think of a sunrise, and then a tequila sunrise, and that made me smile. Which was perfect, because it is the Spanish word for smile, and I had no idea I remembered it.

I’ve been trying to learn Spanish since 1997, so I’ve learned a lot of words. I don’t, however, speak Spanish, which is a different matter. Yet, I can often get the gist of something I read and once a Spanish speaker figures out that I am trying to speak their language (something that is not obvious with my poor accent and constant confusion with vowels), I can often communicate rudimentary concepts. It’s better than nothing.

This year, I will be spending some time in South America. I’m quite excited, and brushing up on Spanish is at the top of my to do list. Sonrisa reminds me of this.

This year, I hope to continue my commitment to fighting for fairness and compassion in my country. Thanks to the research I did for my novel z2, I am a strong supporter of finding a quick and caring solution for the many “dreamers” in our nation, the young people brought here as children who want to make a normal life in the only home they’ve ever know. (One of the main characters in z2 is a dreamer.) Sonrisa makes me think of this.

This year, I hope to come to terms with the few ghosts that still haunt me. One of them is my incessant smile, an artifact of being raised by a woman who hated any other facial expression. She had her reasons, and I understood them. After all, my grandmother lived with us, and my grandmother was the most unhappy person I have ever known.

Yet, no adult wants to be the person with a grin on their face at the worst of moments. I’ve smiled at the news of tragic accidents, during corporate layoffs, and throughout a bout of postpartum depression during which I needed help more desperately than I ever had.

This year, I want to discover how to smile only when I mean it. For me, sonrisa does not carry the baggage of the word smile. I can embrace my sonrisa.

This year, I want to remember how wonderful my life is, how blessed I am. I want to appreciate the love, and stimulation and the comforts that I am fortunate enough to have every day. I want my sonrisa to let that gratitude shine out of my soul, unencumbered by the struggles of those who came before me. To that end, I’ve started a gratitude jar, in which I hope to leave a note every day about some silly or profound thing for which I am grateful.

Here’s the real irony. When I looked for something to use as a container, I stumbled on my grandmother’s old cookie jar. It’s a big ceramic apple, a beautiful creation from long ago. She gave me and my sister store-bought cookies out of it when we came to the house she lived in by day. (She lived with us by night, because she was too afraid to be alone.)

One of my father’s chief complaints was that after a decade of eating dinner every night and sleeping at his house, my grandmother never once said thank you. Even as a child, I recognized that the woman was as incapable of gratitude as she was of love. So I vacillated between thinking her cookie jar was the worst of places to record my own gratitude and the best of them. In the end, the incongruity won me over.

Life is complicated, isn’t it? If you want your sonrisa to be genuine, I figure you need to own the complicated parts. You need to put your arms around them and let them snuggle up against you in such a way that their barbs soften and can no longer hurt you, or at least not as much.

Today, I’ll write my third note to myself. So far I’ve been grateful for being alive in the year 2018, and for oatmeal with raisins. I have no idea what I’ll be thankful for today. Whatever it is, I’ll tuck it into my grandmother’s cookie jar as I send my best thoughts of kindness and understanding to her and my mother, remembering the struggles they had with all the affection I can.

Then, I’ll do my best to let their travails drift into the air and dissipate, as they should have long ago. I’ll let my own beautiful sonrisa emerge like the rising sun.

It’s going to be a very good year.

farewell 2014