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A couple of years ago I blogged regularly about my Year to Live project.   The 365 day experiment profoundly changed the way I think about life, even to this day.

Every once in a while, something fantastic and year-to-live-y grabs my attention and makes me want to jump up and share it with you.

I promise this video about 17-year-old Zach Sobiech’s last days will be worth the 20 minutes it takes to watch it.  Truly – grab someone you love and a box of tissues and just do it.  Because, as Zach says:

You don’t have to find out you’re dying to start living.

Zach died peacefully yesterday at 18, surrounded by his loved ones at home.

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To the degree we can embrace our mortality rather than deny it, we can live that much more completely and joyfully.

– Dean Ornish, MD

Some time has passed since my Year to Live project came to an end, but my interest in reflecting on death as a way of truly living continues on.  I’m happy to recommend a book called Enjoy Every Sandwich to anyone else who isn’t afraid of the conversation!

A quick read, Enjoy Every Sandwich is a spiritual memoir written by Lee Lipsenthal, a young physician who learns he is dying of esophageal cancer.  It reads a lot like Tuesdays With Morrie, flowing with insight and the beauty of human connection.

Here are my main take-aways:

Read the rest of this entry »

The amazing baby shower!

Hello, dear readers of Last Year to Live.

This month marks a year since my one year to live project came to an end.  And a year since my close childhood friend Marisa died of metastatic breast cancer.

I continue to be grateful for everyone who came along with me on this writing journey and for all of the comments – some on the blog, but many more off-line – that kept me inspired throughout that year.  The number one lesson I learned is that engaging in the topic of death unequivocally made me live life more fully.

I have some good news to share!  I’ve just come back from Marisa’s brother & sister-in-law’s baby shower.  Marisa would have been an amazing aunt to this little one, and I like to imagine her smiling at all of us.   The holidays will be a little easier this year.

On my end, because I’ve been missing the brightness of life lived through the lens of writing, I’ve launched a new blog called Beyond Siri’s Grasp.  I hope you’ll sign up for new posts by email or RSS on the top left side of the new blog.  (Unfortunately I can’t transfer your email over automatically, but if you’d prefer, send me an okay and I’ll enter it by hand for you.)

I look forward to seeing you there!

(If you are coming to this Year to Live blog for the first time, consider reading through it in chronological order, starting with the post on February 10, 2010.)

Thank you for reading!

All my best,

Barbara

Somehow, while I wasn’t paying close attention to the date, my Year to Live project odometer crept slowly and steadily forward and now I’m exactly ½ way through the experiment.  Six Months to Live.

From the start, I’ve wondered whether I’d be able to trick myself into living with a greater sense of meaning by imagining that life wasn’t going to stretch on forever.  It seems too trite to mention that death is the common destiny of every person on this planet.  But, oh, the fog we’ll conjure up to protect ourselves from clearly seeing this certain eventuality.

In practical terms, the mere mention of the Year to Live class I’m taking at the Village Zendo in New York, or the book that started Year to Live groups meeting in living rooms across the country, or even this blog made me feel like a skunk at a garden party.  Publicly, no one wants to talk about death.

Yet many mornings since I’ve begun this blog, I’d find a message in my email from a friend or a complete stranger saying that someone close to them had died.  Or they had recently received bad news about their health.  Or they were somehow also just predisposed to think along these lines.

Slowly, these conversations got us thinking more deeply and honestly about our lives.  Some shared poems.  One friend even sweetly offered to officiate at a ceremony at the end of this process.  (Who knows, I may even take her up on it!)  I cherish this new-found community.

Six months to live.  The very sound of it makes my heart beat a little faster, makes me feel like I’d better have something pretty profound to say to mark the occasion.  “Time flies” and “Carpe Diem” are just not up to muster.

But what is a valid way to mark this occasion? I discovered that in my usual life, constantly working towards some future fulfillment, I’d been losing sight of what is immediately present.  What has made this project so tough has been putting the “small”  intangibles that really matter into words.

Take this recent experience as an example…

Last month on a rainy London evening, I left the Globe Theatre with a close friend from Spain who I rarely get to see in person.  There was nary a restaurant open, so we wandered along the Thames arm in arm under one of those crazy umbrellas that’s meant to withstand high winds, where the front is short and back is long, but turned sideways, it holds two friends perfectly.  We talked about everything from work and what it means to contribute to the world, to the damnedest things our kids say, to  how we’ll know for certain when we’ve hit middle age.  For hours we laughed so hard we shook and ignored all of the social niceties reserved for less-close friendships that warn, “You better not say that out loud!”

This month, the same friend put her 12-year-old son on a plane bound for our home in NY.  I’ve known him since he was a baby — she was my first friend to have a child — and we spent many evenings after work taking him along with us to grown up things like art shows and nice restaurants.  That time together had taken away some of the fear I carried which equated having children with losing my sense of self.

So there I was, picking him up at the airport as an unaccompanied minor.  My sons were with me.  Drew presented him with a box of Fig Newtons and a huge hug.  We took him by subway to Chinatown, where he gazed at the decidedly strange things sold from barrels outside the apothecaries and fish shops.  Afterwords, he and Evan played chicken on the monkey bars at the park, the blond peach fuzz on their legs standing out against their bronzed skin.

The next day in the car, driving to Maine to bring them to summer camp, they fell comfortably into talk about the World Cup.   They played a tickle game.  Drew was laughing harder than we’d ever heard him laugh.   He put his head on his new friend’s shoulder and fell asleep.  Evan was endlessly happy that he had someone with him at camp this year to ward off the inevitable first days of homesickness.  When the woman at the Friendly’s where we stopped to use the bathroom asked if they’re my 3 sons,  I smiled saying, “Yes, for today.”

What I mean to say is that perhaps these small moments are what truly make up our legacies.  My warm relationship with a friend flows into a connection between our children, across a vast ocean.  Maybe they will continue to be friends, introducing their own children in the future.  Or maybe they won’t.   In the life that’s important, things don’t need to be so linear.

The poet Natalie Goldberg once said that writers get to live twice.  They  go about their regular lives, but then there’s a second chance where they look closely at the texture and the details.  I’m so grateful to all of you, dear readers, for traveling with me on this journey and for encouraging me to note the small things.  I look forward to sharing the next six months together.

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One of the recent assignments in our Year to Live class was to do a “life review,” and the instructions began something like this:

Sit quietly for a while and bring to mind someone from your past whose kindness touched your heart.

Envision yourself speaking to that person.  Tell them what they have meant to you.

In general, I’m a fan of any exercise that offers the chance of meaningful reflection.  Somehow, though, the process of envisioning myself speaking with people who are very much alive seemed utterly ridiculous.  Why not actually talk to them?  Which is how I found myself on a mission to find my favorite high school teacher from 25 years ago.

Unfortunately, Dr. Montella (for she was one of those rare public high school English teachers with a PhD in the topic) had no discernible presence on the Internet.  A call to the high school led to another dead-end when the receptionist told me that it was against school policy to give out contact information for retired teachers, nor would she be able to tell Dr. Montella that I was looking for her.  I tried the phone book but found no trace of her.

Finally I thought of my sister-in-law’s mother, who taught typing in the high school years back and seems to know just about everyone in the state of New Jersey.

“Yes,” she said.  “I know exactly where she is.  My husband takes yoga with her every week.”

I began to worry if Dr. Montella would have any memory of me.  She must have encountered hundreds upon hundreds of students over the years, and the only thing that might have stood out as a memory of me was that I had won some state writing contest while I was in her class for a literary analysis of the 15th century morality play Everyman, and she had taken me to the award ceremony.  (My own memory of that event was noting how weird it felt to be sitting in my teacher’s car!)

A few weeks passed before this somewhat complicated web of relationships yielded a response.  Dr. Montella certainly remembered who I was, and she would be delighted to hear from me.

I called her immediately, and we did a quick catch-up.  She was exactly as I remembered – no-nonsense, interesting and interested.

“If it seems like I’m writing down what you tell me,” she said, “it’s because I am.”

I wanted to ask if she might like to have lunch someday.  I felt nervous and 17 again.  Thankfully she beat me to it.  That’s how I came to be seated in the dining room of her orderly, yet cheerful, northern NJ condo this week.

For 3 ½ hours we talked like old friends.  She wanted to know about Dave and the children and what I had done with my career.  (“Ghostwriting [part of my work these days] seems so unfair,” she said.  “I understand the function, but really you should think about getting your name on things,” she observed, ever the supportive teacher.)

Much had happened in her life as well.   The momentous news was that her beloved husband had passed away.  After fifty years, it was an adjustment to live without him, though she seems to have dealt with this life-change without a hint of “why me.”  She volunteers at the local hospital, goes on trips with Elderhostel, belongs to a book club, and sings in a choir.  Through it all, fond memories of Tom sustain her.

Which led me to what I really wanted to tell her.

“You gave all of us such valuable skills,” I began.  “But the most important thing you did for me happened the day you put down the text you were teaching, looked around the room, and said, ‘Here’s a bit of advice for your own life when the time comes:  Be sure to marry your best friend.’”

I told her how much those words meant to me.  How I had judged all of my relationships by that measure.  How looking for my best friend had led me on a circuitous but definitive path to Dave.

“Funny,” she said.  “I don’t remember saying that, but I certainly agree with the sentiment.”

We lingered over tea until it was time for both of us to continue on with the tasks of the day.  Getting up to leave, she reached out her arms and thanked me for coming.

******

Right after I wrote this, Dave send me this article from the New York Times about people finding their teachers years later through FaceBook.   I highly recommend trying it yourself.  And if your teacher hasn’t joined the FB revolution, going the extra distance to find him/her might yield benefits to you both!

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"Early Morning" by CW Ye

300 Days Remain

One of the most common reactions I hear from people taking in the concept of the Year to Live project goes something like this:

“Before I die, I really want to walk on the Great Wall of China.”  Or see the Grand Canyon, go on a safari, explore Angkor Wat, hike the Pacific Crest Trail.

It seems that children also put travel among the top priorities for their lives.  The Make-A-Wish Foundation, for example, grants requests from young people with life-threatening illnesses.  Many of these heartfelt wishes are for cruises, visits to Disney, and seeing the Eiffel Tower.

There’s something so vital to travel.  It’s almost antithetical to death.

While I flat out refuse to buy the ever-popular book  “1,000 Places to See Before You Die”, the very concept of which seems – well – a little greedy to me,  I must admit that I too am smitten by travel.

I feel like I’ve been lucky in this regard.  Early in my young adulthood, I was overcome by a desire to see the world outside of the New Jersey suburb where I grew up.  Without hardly a second thought, I applied for a summer job as a “house parent” in a home for teenage foster kids in Appalachia.  (I still marvel at their judgment/desperation in hiring an inexperienced  19-year old Yankee to manage a high-risk group of kids who had been hardened by years of abuse and humiliation.)

One “break” from the action which I always looked forward to during that Kentucky summer was accompanying the librarian of the BookMobile on her excursions into the heart of Appalachia.  In her beat-up old 4-wheel drive, she’d navigate dirt roads which were sometimes barely passable from the landslides caused by strip-mining, all the while compulsively eating Snickers (donated by the crate-load to the foster system).   With a heart full of compassion, she’d carefully explain the situation of each impoverished family we’d be visiting.  It seemed to me that delivering books was a convenient excuse for checking in with people to make sure no one was starving to death.

After that experience I ventured a little farther, spending a year studying anthropology in California, where I didn’t know a soul.  And then I crossed the Pacific and lived in Japan for a couple of years, choosing to teach English over accepting a coveted slot in the management training program of an insurance company back home.   (Some of my elders were none too pleased!)

By the time I was in my mid-twenties, I was so hopelessly addicted to travel that I vowed to combine it with my ideals – vaguely defined as anti-poverty and women’s rights – and somehow cobble together a career out of it.   As part of my jobs, I traveled to Bangladesh, Thailand, Kenya, Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Peru.  I loved being invited into the lives of locals, thinking about how we were different on the surface, but so fundamentally the same inside.

Now that I have a family, my adventures have mostly been closer to home.   Four hours in a car gets us to the beauty of New England.   Well-planned stay-cations visiting with my brothers and their families are fine by me.

Last fall, my husband asked me where I might like to go with the kids during our long spring break.  He said I’d get 51% of the vote.

I started thinking about all that I’d want to show the kids if this were to be my last year.  What would I want to impart?  What culture would I want them to soak in?  Where would my heart sing?

Tomorrow we leave for Turkey  — land of my favorite poet, Rumi.  The crossroads of Europe and Asia.  Home of baklavah.  Muezzin calling the early morning prayers.  Multitudes of opportunities to talk about how much better the world is when we don’t see things as Us vs. Them.

For now, as we leave our laptops behind, I wish you happy spring and joyous holidays.  No matter how far or near you venture, travel well.

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My friend Ibrahima does not know which day or year he was born.

He came into this world in Guinea, West Africa, where his native language Mandinko had no written form until very recently.  To obtain a passport, he had to approximate how old he was and select a day that felt right to him.  (Ibrahima’s amazing account is here.)

I find his story so refreshing.  When he first told me, we were sitting in the playground on a warm afternoon watching our children run and climb.  It got me wondering how artificial dates can be and how much we allow them to rule our lives, right from the start.

Try as we may, it’s hard not to attach meaning to holidays like New Years Eve and Mother’s Day.  The list goes on:  the year we lost our first tooth, the year we graduated from college, the year we will retire.   We even vaguely anticipate how long we’ll live judging from the life expectancy statistics of men and women in our country.

All of these dates contribute to a feeling that we’re almost entitled to something, to the idea that life will work out just so, in an organized manner and time-frame.

Today is my birthday and I’m feeling a sense of rawness.  I’m amazed by the avocado plant flourishing in our window which we have tended since it was a pit.   I’m in awe of the parent in my son’s first grade class who taught the kids how to bind little hard cover books, complete with pop ups and secret compartments.  I’m grateful that a little bird picked our ledge on which to build her nest, of all the ledges in New York City that she had to choose from.

That’s not to say that there’s nothing special about being awakened by my three serenading guys dressed in crazy birthday hats.  Or that I’m not looking forward to a birthday date with Dave.

But I’m pretty convinced that there’s a simple beauty in every day.  And it’s ours for the noticing.

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321 Days Remain

Like unexpected money found in last season’s coat pocket, I discovered a scrap of paper in my wallet this morning.

It’s a quote I must have torn out of a magazine and tucked away for a rainy day, by Charlotte Joko Beck.

On this gray day that’s neither winter nor spring, when my mood seems to match the weather, I’m glad to have found it.

Life always gives us exactly the teacher we need at every moment.

This includes

every mosquito,

every misfortune,

every red light,

every traffic jam,

every obnoxious supervisor (or employee),

every illness,

every loss,

every moment of joy or depression,

every addiction,

every piece of garbage,

every breath.

This gets me thinking of my wise friend Dana.  When I start complaining about various and sundry things/situations/people in life, she likes to say, “What’s the gift in this?

The question always takes me by surprise, followed quickly by irritation at the seeming Pollyanna-ness of articulating an answer.

But sometimes I can catch the shadow of a teacher and a vague feeling of hopefulness.

The big question for the Last Year to Live is, of course, can I learn to accept even mortality itself as a teacher?

And how to do that?

Only by parceling down situations into minuscule moments, and then even further.  Breath by breath.  Atom by atom.

By the way, if you don’t know Charlotte Joko Beck, I’m very pleased to be making the introduction!   It was only around age 40 that this mom of four — newly separated from her husband and working as a teacher and a secretary — began meditating.

She went on to write  one of the most engaging books I’ve read about living fully in the face of the pesky challenges of daily living — relationships, work, fear, ambition, and suffering.

I love the interaction she had with an interviewer for this article:

Donna Rockwell: I read your books.

Charlotte Joko Beck: Oh you read. Well, give up reading, O.K.?

Donna Rockwell: Give up reading your books?

Charlotte Joko Beck: Well, they’re all right. Read them once and that’s enough. Books are useful. But some people read for fifty years, you know. And they haven’t begun their practice.

That said, I’m signing off to get on with it.  Have a wonderful weekend, everyone!



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349 Days Remain

Deb and I have known each other for nearly 30 years.

When you know someone that long, you begin to turn into sisters.

If all of my goodbyes are as hard as this one, I’ll drown in a sea of tears before my final year is out.

I wrote these words in my journal the first night of my visit with Deb and her open-hearted partner, Sven.  I’d flown out to San Francisco so we could spend a final weekend together.  Having had another close friend go through a “Year to Live” project, they immediately understood why this trip was packed with such meaning.

“So what do you want to do with this time together? ” Deb asked pointedly.

All I wanted was to simply be together – preferably in nature.  And if I could get up close with a majestic redwood before I said farewell to California too, all the better.

With the weather gods on our side, we set out each morning.  Cherry trees were blossoming in February, and we spent hours wandering the trails along the dramatic coast line.

Mostly I spent the time feeling overwhelmingly grateful for our years of closeness.  We hugged a lot.  We acted silly, frolicking near the water’s edge.  We ate amazing local breads and cheeses (hey – why worry about cholesterol when you’re dying!), and sipped fresh brewed teas.  The three of us talked late into the night about life and life’s work, fighting waves of exhaustion to keep the conversation going.

When it came time for our farewell, I realized that my welling tears were more about the preciousness of our bond than a craving for its continuity.

Deb pressed a bright blue glass talisman from Sven’s recent trip to Turkey into my hand as we said goodbye in the BART station on Mission Street.

“It’s for protection on this journey, Barb, ” she said.

I love you so much, dear Deb.  Thank you for adding beauty to my days.

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365 Days Remain

Tonight begins my “Year to Live” journey.  Twenty-five of us are assembled in an open loft space in SoHo, sitting on black plastic folding chairs, facing the front of the room.

Robert “Chodo” Campbell, the co-founder of the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, asks us to close our eyes.

In his sonorous British baritone, he instructs us to visualize ourselves going to the doctor’s office.

“Really feel yourself in that space,” he instructs.  Gravely, he begins:

“We’ve got the results of your blood work and the scan, and I’m afraid it’s worse than we thought.  You have, at most, 12 months to live.  Go home and put all of your affairs in order.  The nurse can call someone to come and pick you up.  You can stay here as long as you need and collect your thoughts.”

I feel my palms getting moist.  Would my doctor really say, “Go home and put all of your affairs in order,” I wonder.  I’d like to think he’s got more soul than that.

What would he say?  “Go home and be with Dave and the boys.”  That’s better.  Dave and the boys are a hell of a lot more comforting than my “affairs.”

Chodo rings the large gong at his feet, and we slowly open our eyes.  Then he asks us to think about a couple of things.

  • Who will you tell?

Dave.  I’d have the nurse call Dave right away.

My mom and dad?  I wonder.  My dad recently turned 80, and my mom is in her late 70s.  They’d need to know, but not right away.

The boys?  This is unimaginable.  How do you break such news to a 9 and a 6-year old?

My brothers and sisters-in-law.  Yes, I can do that.  I need their support.

Susan, Deb, Joy, the Lisa’s…  My list of friends grows and starts arranging itself neatly in my mind.  I feel a bit of relief.

  • What does this change for you?

Wow.  It’s immediately apparent.  “I’ve got to get off FaceBook and email,” I say to myself with certainty.  Superficial, I know.  But it’s a start.

It’s clear that I’ll need all of my remaining days to think about these things.  I’m grateful that the Year to Live program gives me that chance.  Judging by the reaction of my friends, most people would rather re-do the SATs before putting themselves through a course like this.

As the evening winds to a close, seven of us jam ourselves silently into the tiny elevator.  Before we hit the lobby, we stop at the 3rd floor where a woman moves to get in.  Seeing that it’s full, she backs away with a start.

“I guess she doesn’t want to be with 6 dying people,” I quip as the doors close.

A classmate behind me says softly, “But there are 7 of us.”

“I wasn’t counting myself,” I respond.  Full denial has already set in.

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