Once upon a time I invested an inordinate amount of physical and mental energy in things that ended up taking a lot from me. I saw lists as critical to ongoing efficiency and made at least two each evening for the next day. They might include notations regarding cleaning/organizing the house, shopping for and feeding a family of seven at least twice a day, planning and scheduling the month ahead so the timing was perfect, a variety of meetings and events. Then there was worrying about how the bills would get paid and how to still save enough for a getaway (with or without children) in summer, ruminating about everything from my lack of an impressive formal education to my husband’s demanding career and working lots of overtime at my job to develop my own credibility. And do not forget to take the dog to the vet, a child to the dentist, the outgrown clothing to the shelter, car to the mechanic. Also: dredge up the stamina until one a.m. to get the laundry and ironing done so everyone would look picture-perfect the next day. That growing pile of odd-paired socks accused me from the cold basement floor. At times it felt as though I was battling a beast, one that resided in domestic limbo with me when all the rest of the house snored away.
Time was racing on and I was running along with it, sweat trickling down my back, yet it seemed I never caught up, much less managed to meet all requirements of each moment. Some on the list were necessary chores; some were important; some were a waste of time to fret about. But my motto was clearly “press on.”
Well, to be honest, my mottos were more like “Excellence Above All!” and “Onward and Upward!” So who was really asking me to push on like a driven workaholic when I was exhausted or ill or just completely fed up? Even I knew as a younger woman that something had to give but there just wasn’t time. It didn’t get fully addressed until I had my heart affair, that experience of the unbelievably crushing weight settling itself on my chest as I was hiking in the middle of a gorgeous woods.
As you can imagine, I took some time to re-order my priorities. When I got down to it, it wasn’t so hard to do. After three years away from my career to attend to my health and rejuvenate emotionally and spiritually, I went back to work as a counselor. I still work full-time though many at this age seem to be happily retiring. It isn’t the negligible paycheck. Working with endlessly intriguing, complicated people who can use a helping hand is what draws me from the comfort of my home each morning. I am recharged by the very acts of reaching out, listening, offering information and reflections. Caring. There is power in being deeply present with others; it can refurbish the giver as well as the receiver. It is one of my lifelong callings.
Recovery management is an addictions treatment group I facilitate twice a week at work. I could spend most of my time lecturing about the monumental dangers of relapse to alcohol and other drug use but it wouldn’t make that much difference, in my experience. Most people resist being told the worst possible scenarios. And many of my clients have already lived through them and need something different. Instead, I talk about the dangers of living lives that are just tolerated, deeply resented, discounted, or flat given up. We discuss what they once loved but lost, what they’ve always wanted to do, the strengths they can promote despite also having some liabilities. What thrills them and challenges each one to become better persons? What gives them contentment, laughter, focus, energy?
I ask: “Do you wake up wondering how much good stuff you can learn, experience and share in the next fourteen hours or more? Or is it just another middling morning to deal with? Because all this is not a dress rehearsal; it is your actual, true life this very minute, or it ought to be.”
To the woman in the corner who chews her nails though she wears a perfectly coordinated, wrinkle-free outfit or the man who hangs his head and closes his bleary eyes, hands clenched tightly, I suggest the same: “Take back your life. Now.” We talk about how they can start simply but I ask that they do not delay. Everything counts when a person transforms his or her life. I get excited and my hands start to talk along with me: “Make an investment in what you care about first, what you long for most. There will time to attend to the rest. This moment is your opportunity to be happy.”
It isn’t that hard. It doesn’t cost us much–rather it costs far less than it will when you find yourself emptied, worn down from neglect one day. We each perceive and experience what we choose; we can decide to absorb ourselves in whatever brings us closer to inner freedom, strength and courage, appreciation of others and ourselves–and perhaps most of all, lasting peace.
What changed for me? It wasn’t that I didn’t have passion for life before being diagnosed with coronary artery disease. But maybe I didn’t have such grand good sense, and that lack took me off the rails and into a hinterland of too much brutish work and nagging worry, not enough enriching activity and tranquility. I started to make time while addressing the mundane parts of living. I learned to tell myself and others “enough”; solitude became a solace. So much of what comes our way we cannot control; I can only control my own self, and that certainly isn’t one hundred percent guaranteed, either. The past has already been lived and the ruined or wounded parts, therefore, are no longer allowed to steal my present. The far-flung future is known only by God and prophets and I am neither–so it is unexplored territory. It will be unveiled as I participate in each unfolding day. And I step forth, even though I know one day I will likely stumble. That old basement beast has a way of reincarnating–it might need taming again. (I still favor lists, but not every item has to be crossed off before I can get to sleep at night.)
So, I am having the time of my life. Not tomorrow. Today. I haven’t known boredom because there always is someone or something I want to learn about. There is music to hear, art to see and make, theatre to attend, dance to enjoy, other cultures and places to explore. There is a natural world resonant with wonders right outside my door; I want to be in it. There are books to delve into; they fill bookcases and lean against the walls in happy, lopsided stacks. The multitudinous stories that rise up within me await the time of day or night when I sit down and write; it is like falling in love each time. I have a lot of family about whom I care fiercely and eternally, and friends who I will be seeing soon again, our voices at ease in debate or laughter or shared sorrows.
My life is so full I sometimes wonder how much more I have room for, but living this way is like discovering a deepening well, ever available for replenishment. And then I can open my hands to others more generously.
Voluptuous, golden sunshine floods my balcony and the potted pansies wave in the delicate breeze. A white butterfly pauses on the railing, wings elegant and bright. A dog with a basso voice is barking cheerfully. Someone calls across the street. Please excuse me–I’m off to see what’s happening next.