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Last month my year to live journey came to an end.

For nearly one year, a small group of us met each month at the Village Zendo in New York to discuss mortality and to think constructively about how we might go about living our lives if we truly had just one year to live.

I documented my thoughts throughout the year in this blog.  What I did not write about was the all-too-real end-of-life journey of my earliest childhood friend Marisa, who was courageously facing metastatic cancer while I went about my hypothetical journey.

On the night of November 17, our class did a “dissolution of the body” meditation — a guided exercise used by Tibetan lamas to prepare people for the journey of death and beyond.   I’d be pretty hard-pressed to tell you what it was like because right at the point when our teacher said, “Resist the temptation to fall asleep,” I fell promptly asleep.

But that’s not the important thing.  Five days later, Marisa passed away.

In my grayest moments, I’ve dismissed my own year to live process as frivolous because I am, as much as any of us can claim, healthy.

Then I remember the last time I visited Marisa.  We laughed about the silly details of our childhoods together, like how we let our brothers con us into racing their dirt bikes off a ramp, flying through the air over us (a la Evel Knievel) while we lay completely flat on the asphalt.  And the great trips our families took together involving rented beach shacks and RV trailers.

“It’s hard to come up with a memory from childhood that doesn’t include you guys,” she smiled.

With a lot of hard-earned wisdom under her belt, Marisa posted on Facebook in June: “9 years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer.  I’ve seen my share of ups and downs over the years but I seem to only really remember the ups.  The downs will come and go – no reason to get stuck on them.  But the ups, those are the memories you keep forever.”

Of course, “forever” is a relative term.  Marisa’s ups are now my ups.  And maybe someday my own children will remember parts of the stories and her ups will be theirs.  But eventually it all fades into some ethereal mystery.

Still, I like her view of things — if we can put the things we’re grateful for into some kind of internal treasure box to look back upon sometimes (all things in moderation, of course), we’d probably be doing ourselves a world of good.

I can imagine that burying a child of any age has to be the most painful act of all.  I’ve heard many people question faith and god in these circumstances.  Allow me to share a passage from one of the best books on dying I read all year (and believe me, I read my fair share of them!).

“Here If You Need Me” by Kate Braestrup is the autobiography of the chaplain for the Maine game warden who herself was widowed with four young children when her husband – a state trooper – was killed in a car accident.  I’ve read and re-read this passage many times:

My children asked me, “Why did Dad die?”

I told them, “It was an accident.  There are small accidents, like knocking over your milk at the dinner table.  And there are large accidents, like the one your dad was in.  No one meant it to happen.  It just happened.  And his body was too badly damaged in the accident for his soul to stay in it anymore, and so he died.

“God does not spill milk.  God did not bash the truck into your father’s car.  Nowhere in the scripture does it say, ‘God is car accident’ or ‘God is death.’  God is justice and kindness, mercy, and always – always – love.  So if you want to know where God is in this or in anything, look for love.”

I’ve been looking for love everywhere.  I saw it in my fellow classmates and our teachers at the Zendo this year.  I saw it in heartfelt comments on this blog.   I saw it played out in my own family.  I saw it in the acts of complete strangers on our trip overseas.  I saw it in the hugs and stories shared at Marisa’s funeral.

I’ve got a year’s worth of learnings, sayings and little nuggets I could end with.  I think, though, I’m going to leave it with this.  If you find wisdom in it, please use it to inform your own journey.  And please keep me posted!

Every day in Zen temples around the world, the following verse marks the close of the day’s ceremonies:

Let me respectfully remind you, life and death are of supreme importance.  Time passes swiftly and opportunity is lost.  Each of us must strive to awaken.  Awaken!  Take heed, do not squander your lives.

May our paths cross again soon,

Barbara

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Angel Orensanz Synagogue, Lower East Side

Dearest Friends,

For nearly two months now, I’ve completely neglected my Year to Live project.  Dead silence on my part.  I got so out of the habit of writing this blog that I had to root through piles of paper to even find the password to log in.

I feel like I owe you an explanation. . .  I was just out there in the world, living ferociously.

In that time  I indulged my wanderlust and set off for the mountains and any body of water I could find.  I hiked in an old growth forest in Oregon with one of my closest friends, her daughter and my littlest guy.  We rafted down a river in the high desert and slipped our bodies into soothing natural hot springs.    I skipped rocks on a glass-surfaced lake in Maine with my husband, ate wild blueberries on a trail in the White Mountains, was chased by a flock of migrating shorebirds on a protected island off Massachusetts, and strained to see a whale (a whale!) off the coast of New Jersey.

I think the complete surrender into what I value most in life was exactly what I needed after thinking about mortality so deeply month after month.

But here’s the thing:  there came a time when I longed to be grounded once again in the reality of my everyday life.  The familiar messiness. These very piles of paper.  My work.  The cacophony of street noises on my New York block.  The personalities that drive me to distraction.

I came to remember that there truly is a season for everything.  That it was time to bid farewell to a memorable summer and to greet whatever life has in store for me this fall.

Which brings me to Yom Kippur.  Today is the holiest of days in the Jewish calendar.  For twenty years, I’ve been observing this holiday in solidarity with my husband.  What I didn’t recognize until someone in my Year to Live class pointed it out, is that one interpretation of the day is that it is a “rehearsal for death.”  My classmate  Diane said – crediting Rabbi Shefa Gold also:

Yom Kippur is a day when Jews fast from food and drink, from sex, from anointing themselves, from washing, and wearing leather – all as a way to detach ourselves from the physical body and to have the experience of the nakedness of our existence.  Many Jews wear a “kittel” a full length, white garment which is the dress (shroud) that many Jews are buried in.

During the entire period, we act as if this day were our last, “our only day to face the Truth, forgive ourselves and each other, remember who we are and why we were born.  Yom Kippur reminds us that we are all dying.  There is no time for regret, worry, fear, no time to put off facing the truth, or to delay thanking our beloveds.”  Each moment takes on an urgency, and like each encounter with death we are urged into the fullness of living.

It is not morbid however because it is predicated on the hope of the New Year and the opportunity to live life to its fullest.  It is a day of death so that there can be a new life.

Last night, as a single violin resonated Kol Nidre throughout our historic synagogue, candles flickering from every hanging chandelier and – improbably – a striking long-haired cat wandering around the altar, I gave thanks to the universe for the life I’ve been so lucky to lead and vowed to try not to take it for granted.  I silently rededicated myself to bringing awareness to my deeds and to living with compassion for others and for myself.

An important part of this past year has been writing to all of you, and I do hope you’ll continue to join me in this journey.  Echoing the words of my classmate, I wish you all a good and sweet year and a year of insight,  loving-kindness and peace.

All my very best,

Barbara

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing

A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away

A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak

A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

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Banksy's Beat Up Buddha

211 days remain

On my recent trip to London, I was strolling in an outdoor market with friends when one of them pulled us into a stall featuring the work of her favorite artist, Banksy.

For me, it was love at first sight.

Banksy is a graffiti artist who makes high art out of the political.  His work can be seen on walls from post-hurricane New Orleans to the military division between Palestine and Israel.  With Banksy, there’s always at least one subversive message to be discovered.

In that market stall, so many of the 9×12 canvas reproductions of his work jumped out at me:

Ok – maybe it’s not the kind of thing you’d want hanging on your wall.  Or is it?

I picked up a canvas with Banksy’s beat up Buddha, complete with black eye, bloodied nose, neck brace and bandaged hand.  I wondered what the kids would make of this.

So I plunked down 25 pounds and bought it.

The first thing I did when I got home was to pound a nail into the empty wall behind the toilet in the bathroom and hang it.   It’s a prime piece of art real estate for the male gender, who probably spend more time staring at that space than any other, I reasoned.

And then I waited.

Evan noticed it first.  He came running out of the bathroom, “I love it,”  he shouted.

“What does it mean?”  I asked.

“Buddha picked a fight,” he said.  “It means he’s not all that you think he his.”

“Great!  Keep going,” I encouraged.

Two weeks later, I have a collection of potential meanings from our family and friends.  We’ve had a lot of fun with this, racking our brains, rolling our eyes at some interpretations, applauding others:

  • It’s a representation of the famous Zen saying, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”
  • A calm mind can handle the worst of human nature.
  • It’s a statement about the Chinese government invading Tibet and killing the monks.
  • It’s a statement about the Burmese government attacking monks.
  • It’s not possible to be perfect.
  • Organized religion can be a giant deception.
  • Since the original was spray painted on a wall in London and was already painted over, it shows that everything is an illusion.

I’m sure there’s a lot more that can be said (please feel free to add your interpretation), but I learned a lot from our little exercise in art appreciation.

Life can be taken sitting down, observing.  That can be a good thing.  But it can also be grabbed, interpreted, discussed, debated,  found wanting, enjoyed.  And when we take it to this level, it’s all the richer.  Life is art.

Banksy-inspired art

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Creative Commons

230 days remain

Many years ago I worked in a drab office full of cubicles where there were no secrets.  One morning my colleague poked her head over the divider to tell me that she was having a visitor later that day — her best friend from college who, she confided, had inoperable brain cancer.

This friend was traveling around the country with her boyfriend to spend time with loved ones while she still could.  She was all of 24 or 25.  When I caught a glimpse of her that day, I couldn’t believe how happy she seemed.

I’ve thought about that young woman many times during my year to live project.  While I, admittedly, knew precious little about her state-of-mind, her trip struck me as a beautiful, courageous way to approach her remaining time.  An act of graceful acceptance, fully honoring the primacy of her web of interconnectedness.

In that spirit, I’ve vowed to venture out this year to be with people I care about.  By dint of the career I chose (loosely defined as international social justice) and the time I’ve spent on the road, many of my close friends are far away.  I wish that time and frequent flyer credits would allow me to visit every single one of them this year, but I’ve decided that small steps towards that vision are better than merely paying it lip-service.

This weekend you’ll find me at the annual sheep shearing party on the farm next to my brother’s in New Jersey, surrounded by three generations of family.  Then I’ll fly to London to see a friend who I’ve been promising to visit for the past 8 years, which happily coincides with the travels of two other friends — one from Spain and one from Angola — who will also be there.  Then, volcano gods willing, I’ll make my way to Ohio to be with my freshman roommates.  There’s a lot of catching up to be done.

I know.  It’s an odd assortment of places to be in one week’s time.  And it’s a totally privileged thing to be able to do (I carry around a healthy dose of guilt about these things).  But the window of opportunity can slam shut quickly, and life is too short to make excuses.

I’ve always loved this Irish blessing, and it’s my hope for you no matter how near or far you roam this summer:

May the road rise to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back,
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
The rains fall soft upon your fields and,
Until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.

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Ann Dunham, the President's mother, visiting a Balinese duck farm

248 days remain

I’ve just returned from 240 hours of silence.  No coffee.  No chocolate. No NPR.  No Facebook.

It was amazing!

It will sound like a case of the dog ate my homework.  But here I am, jumping into a week of work which will involve speaking a lot — sometimes even in Spanish.  Life is funny that way.

So I thought I’d share with you something I wrote that was published in On the Issues Magazine while I was gone.

It’s really not about death.   It’s a personal story about travel and life.  There’s a short section on how I came to know President Obama’s mother.  It still saddens me that Obama said of her final days:

She was 52 years old when she died of ovarian cancer, and you know what she was thinking about in the last months of her life? She wasn’t thinking about getting well. She wasn’t thinking about coming to terms with her own mortality. She had been diagnosed just as she was transitioning between jobs. And she wasn’t sure whether insurance was going to cover the medical expenses because they might consider this a preexisting condition. I remember just being heartbroken, seeing her struggle through the paperwork and the medical bills and the insurance forms.

My blog isn’t about debating the health care system, to be sure!  But it’s sad for me to think of Ann — or anyone — in this way.

You might prefer to read my story here with the nice layout and all.  I promise I’ll be back to you soon about what I really gleaned from my meditation retreat!

Dispatches from the Road: A Travelogue of True Stories

Two decades ago, an encounter with a now-famous global trailblazer helped point me on a path of international travel from which I’ve never looked back. The lessons I’ve learned on the road have informed my career choice, my activism, and even my willingness to be open to perfect strangers.

Recently I began to pass along the simple delights of travel to my two young sons. If their generation doesn’t learn to cross borders and become citizens of the world, what are the prospects for solving the critical issues facing the planet?

Crossing borders aboard the Dogu Express

The Dogu Ekspresi train runs from Turkey’s far eastern border near Armenia to Istanbul in just under 40 hours. Earlier this year, my husband and I, vacationing with our children, climbed aboard in Central Turkey for the train’s remaining 18-hour route to Istanbul.

We were warned that it is one of Turkey’s slowest and oldest trains. Perhaps we’d be better off considering an hour and a half flight back to Istanbul? Or the 10-hour bus ride, at the same price?

We’d also heard that there were warning signs in the sleeping car reading: “Recently some persons with bad intentions have approached our passengers and offered them food or drink containing sleeping drugs, and have then stolen their valuables…. We wish you a pleasant journey.”

The truth is, I had agreed to this meandering mode of travel because of the children. It’s hard to describe the light in our six- and ten-year old boys’ eyes at the very thought of a sleeper car (with bunk beds!) and a dining car (with tablecloths!)

Plus, I’d warmed up to the idea of nearly a day on the train after having met a fascinating and friendly family from Iran who had crossed the border into Turkey and taken the Dogu Express from its starting point in Kars.

Indeed, one of my chief criteria in selecting travel destinations is the opportunity to interact with people from cultures and backgrounds I don’t usually encounter at home. If interesting people like that were on this “express,” how could it not be a good idea?

On the day of our departure, the train was already over an hour delayed. We waited in the Kayseri station as the boys curiously eyed the automatic guns of the dozen soldiers standing about, and I strategically lifted our bags to higher ground while the janitor threw buckets of soapy water over the grooved marble floor.

On The Issues Magazine -
On the Train

Once the train finally pulled into the station and we ran along the track to find car nine, we were greeted enthusiastically by an older woman wearing a headscarf and fingering her worn prayer beads. She took my hand, smiling, and starting speaking in rapid-fire Turkish.

Pretty much the only thing I can say in Turkish is, “I’m sorry, but I don’t speak Turkish.” I gave it a try. She laughed heartily and continued talking. Maybe she was speaking Farsi? Armenian? Eventually she waved goodbye and went back to her compartment.

A few hours later, I was sitting alone while my husband and the boys explored the train, when she came back. She smiled and sat down in the empty seat right next to me. And she started speaking quickly again, as if we were old friends.

I took out our Turkish phrase book and tried to make conversation.

“Where are you from? I’m from America.” She just laughed and continued right on.

“Where are you traveling to?” Nothing. “Istanbul?” Now she was nodding her head, still smiling and talking.

This went on for a while longer, and I figured I’d join in the only way I knew how.

If interesting people like that were on this “express,” how could it not be a good idea?

So, in English, I told her about my life. How we were on something called spring break. How my husband looks Turkish, but his family originally came from Russia. That my parents and my husband’s parents live not-too-far from us and that we see them often. And how my brothers and their families are nearby and how that might all seem like we live in a small village, but we’re really from New York.

She listened along, nodding vigorously as if she understood every word I said. Then she told me her story. I offered her a bag of raisins we’d bought in the outdoor market in Göreme. She accepted, patting me on the shoulder. Then she went back to her compartment and returned minutes later with a half-drunk bottle of orange soda. We joined hands for a moment and said goodnight as the sun set over the hills outside our window.

Years ago I taped a phrase by the Austrian philosopher Wittgenstein to my college German folder: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” At the time, I took its meaning more literally than Wittgenstein ever intended, believing that a facility with languages could expand my understanding of the world. While this is no doubt true, the conversation with my new travel companion had defied the boundary of words entirely.

A day is a long time to spend on a train, but the interaction left me feeling more refreshed and connected than I’d been in a while.

Sound advice from President Obama’s mother

I received a lot of encouragement to travel “off-the-beaten path” by following the advice of an academic whose approach to education went far beyond the world’s ivory towers.

It was 1994 and I was happily ensconced in a post-graduate school internship at the United Nations, helping to develop materials about revenue-generating activities for low-income women. Internships can either be monotonous times filing away a supervisor’s paperwork or stepping-stones leading to exciting new opportunities.

As luck would have it, that position brought me in contact with Ann Dunham, a pioneer in microfinance who helped set me on a new direction for my career — and my life.

Ann Dunham with a villager in Lombok, Indonesia

When I met her, Ann was leading a newly formed International Coalition on Women in Credit in preparation for the UN Beijing Women’s Summit in 1995. She and her colleagues at Women’s World Banking understood communications in a way that was pretty rare at the time.

Ann felt that she would have the chance of convincing the international community gathered in Beijing of the benefits of lending small sums to poor women if she could help them to see the results for themselves.

In other words, she wanted her audience to look into the faces of poor women instead of merely hearing economic statistics about successful programs.

Knowing that I had been involved in producing videos, she asked me to edit two pieces for broadcast in Beijing, featuring microcredit programs in Nepal and Bangladesh.

“Make sure it’s about the women,” she instructed.

I admired Ann for her wandering spirit as an American anthropologist whose PhD research led her to Indonesia to examine the role of women in cottage industries. When my video editing project was finished, she encouraged me to follow my dream to travel to rural Bangladesh and study the granddaddy of all microfinance groups, the Grameen Bank. It would help ground my ideals in real life experience, I remember her saying. And while I was there, she wanted me to produce a longer film about a poverty alleviation program in Dhaka to air at the Beijing Conference. I gladly accepted the challenge.

It’s hard to put into words how fortuitous this was for me. Going to Bangladesh and producing films for Ann married my dual loves of international campaigns for justice and communications. Finally I had a tangible way of combining the two.

By the time I made it back to the United States, Ann, only 53 years old, was living out her final days with cancer in Hawaii. She never made it to Beijing.

Now that the world knows Ann as the mother of President Barack Obama, her enormous contributions are being given the recognition she deserves.

And from the perspective of this former intern, I am grateful to Ann for opening my eyes to the imperative of learning directly from the source – from the people themselves, no matter where they may be.

Leaving the world a little better than you found it

In the 1940s, Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell — who was credited with founding the Scout Movement — wrote a letter found in his desk drawer after his death. Within it was his now-famous advice to Scouts around the globe: “Try and leave this world a little better than you found it.”

When we take to the road, there’s no telling what we’ll put into motion

Baden-Powell’s words represent a worthy aspiration for anyone concerned about the fate of the planet and the seemingly intractable issues of our time – including poverty, disease, conflict and climate change.

But when we brush off our passports and take to the road with a few essentials, there’s no telling what change we’ll put into motion. For some, risk-taking may mean trekking in a remote land. For others, risk-taking may be acquiring a new skill set or finding meaningful employment overseas. And for many more, it may mean developing a one-on-one relationship that surmounts language or cultural differences, even right in their own backyard.

An enormous map of the world covers a wall in my children’s bedroom. Many nights since our trip to Turkey, they point to a new area and ask me what it’s like there. Then, as their eyelids grow heavier and their breathing deepens, I imagine that their dreams are carrying them wherever they want to go.

Travel well, little ones. May you see the world not only as it is, but as it could be.

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286 Days Remain

“How was Turkey?” kind friends and family have been asking.

After being home for a couple of days, the only way I can think to describe it is as Lakshman says of his life in the Ramayana,  “It’s like something I dreamed once, long ago, far away.”

The trip had many magical qualities to it.  And the honest to goodness truth is, I didn’t think too much about my Year to Live project while we were away.  (Other than noticing how much I cling to the idea that my life will be a long one when I inadvertently say things like:  “We’ll have to come back here someday!”)

Here are just a few of the memories.  But if you promise to come over, we’ll serve tea in clear glasses, show you the whole album, and send you away with a cobalt blue charm to ward off the evil eye…

Speaking of eyes, we heard that many stray cats in Istanbul have one blue eye and one amber eye.  It was our mission to find one!  Trouble is, most just wouldn’t give us the time of day.  (There’s a pic of one on this site.)

Hiking the Pigeon Valley in Cappadocia, Central Turkey. Normally I’m not a fan of buying native garb. But, it was snowing that morning, and — having foolishly believed Weather.com — had only packed light jackets.

One morning in Göreme we woke at sunrise to the strangest sound that went something like this: Fffwwwuuup, Fffwwwuuup.  In the field across the road, 40 hot-air balloons were taking off.  (The noises were the torches inflating the balloons.)

Dave had this crazy idea that we’d take an 18-hour train ride from Central Turkey to Istanbul (rather than the 1.5 hour flight or the 10-hour bus that cost the same amount).   It didn’t sound like fun to me.

I was totally wrong.  It ranks as the boys’ top memory of the trip.  And we got to arrive in Istanbul as the sun rose, just as the Orient Express did in years long gone.

People in Turkey absolutely adore children.  On a crowded tram, a 70-year old man rearranged Evan’s hair repeatedly for 5 minutes.  (There wasn’t even a hint of creepiness.)  Strangers walked up to them and pinched their cheeks.

Here, on an elevator, some soccer fans grabbed the kids into a friendly team embrace while their friends took pics on their cell phones.

It was like traveling with mini rock stars.  Wow, did they love the attention.

Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s famed Nobel Prize winning author, writes often about hüzün – a state of melancholy.  He opened his book “Istanbul” with a quote by Ahmet Rasim, “The beauty of a landscape resides in its melancholy.”

Indeed, Istanbul – the crossroads of Asia and Europe – is a city of neglected villas, ancient Byzantine and Ottoman glories, and the ever-changing waters of the Bosphorus, where we saw nearly fifty dolphins swimming at dusk.

There is a certain kind of yearning here, even as the city becomes “modern” at a dizzying speed.

I got to fulfill my long-time dream of seeing the Whirling Dervishes of Mevlevi!

The “turn” originated with the Sufi mystic Rumi, who (according to the fascinating poet/translator Coleman Barks) while walking through the gold-smithing section of Konya heard beautiful music in their hammering:

“He began turning in harmony with it, an ecstatic dance of surrender and yet with great centered discipline.   He arrived at a place where ego dissolves and a resonance with universal soul comes in.”

The boys fidgeted endlessly and then at least one of them fell asleep.  But I was in heaven.  And, so, I leave you for now with my favorite passage from Rumi about the Turn:

Keep walking, though there’s no place to get to.

Don’t try to see through the distances.

That’s not for human beings.  Move within,

but don’t move the way fear makes you move.

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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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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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This essay was written by a 17-year old in 1938.  It was reprinted in the Wall Street Journal on Feb. 6.    It’s a passionate look at the 5 things the young man wants from life before he dies …

  1. Doing something truly great
  2. Friendship
  3. Travel
  4. Love
  5. And – yes – even sorrow

Before I Die

By Edmund N. Carpenter, II

The following essay was written by Edmund N. Carpenter, age 17, in June 1938 while he was a student in Lawrenceville, N.J. Carpenter would go on to win the Bronze Star for his service in World War II and to a civilian career as an attorney. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he became president of Richards, Layton & Finger, a law firm. He died on Dec. 19, 2008 at age 87 and is survived by six children and 15 grandchildren:

It may seem very strange to the reader that one of my tender age should already be thinking about that inevitable end to which even the paths of glory lead. However, this essay is not really concerned with death, but rather with life, my future life. I have set down here the things which I, at this age, believe essential to happiness and complete enjoyment of life. Some of them will doubtless seem very odd to the reader; others will perhaps be completely in accord with his own wishes. At any rate, they compose a synopsis of the things which I sincerely desire to have done before I leave this world and pass on to the life hereafter or to oblivion.

Before I die I want to know that I have done something truly great, that I have accomplished some glorious achievement the credit for which belongs solely to me. I do not aspire to become as famous as a Napoleon and conquer many nations; but I do want, almost above all else, to feel that I have been an addition to this world of ours. I should like the world, or at least my native land, to be proud of me and to sit up and take notice when my name is pronounced and say, “There is a man who has done a great thing.” I do not want to have passed through life as just another speck of humanity, just another cog in a tremendous machine. I want to be something greater, far greater than that. My desire is not so much for immortality as for distinction while I am alive. When I leave this world, I want to know that my life has not been in vain, but that I have, in the course of my existence, done something of which I am rightfully very proud.

Before I die I want to know that during my life I have brought great happiness to others. Friendship, we all agree, is one of the best things in the world, and I want to have many friends. But I could never die fully contented unless I knew that those with whom I had been intimate had gained real happiness from their friendship with me. Moreover, I feel there is a really sincere pleasure to be found in pleasing others, a kind of pleasure that can not be gained from anything else. We all want much happiness in our lives, and giving it to others is one of the surest ways to achieve it for ourselves.

Before I die I want to have visited a large portion of the globe and to have actually lived with several foreign races in their own environment. By traveling in countries other than my own I hope to broaden and improve my outlook on life so that I can get a deeper, and more complete satisfaction from living. By mixing the weighty philosophy of China with the hard practicalism of America, I hope to make my life fuller. By blending the rigid discipline of Germany with the great liberty in our own nation I hope to more completely enjoy my years on this earth. These are but two examples of the many things which I expect to achieve by traveling and thus have a greater appreciation of life.

Before I die there is another great desire I must fulfill, and that is to have felt a truly great love. At my young age I know that love, other than some filial affection, is probably far beyond my ken. Yet, young as I may be, I believe I have had enough inkling of the subject to know that he who has not loved has not really lived. Nor will I feel my life is complete until I have actually experienced that burning flame and know that I am at last in love, truly in love. I want to feel that my whole heart and soul are set on one girl whom I wish to be a perfect angel in my eyes. I want to feel a love that will far surpass any other emotion that I have ever felt. I know that when I am at last really in love then I will start living a different, better life, filled with new pleasures that I never knew existed.

Before I die I want to feel a great sorrow. This, perhaps, of all my wishes will seem the strangest to the reader. Yet, is it unusual that I should wish to have had a complete life? I want to have lived fully, and certainly sorrow is a part of life. It is my belief that, as in the case of love, no man has lived until he has felt sorrow. It molds us and teaches us that there is a far deeper significance to life than might be supposed if one passed through this world forever happy and carefree. Moreover, once the pangs of sorrow have slackened, for I do not believe it to be a permanent emotion, its dregs often leave us a better knowledge of this world of ours and a better understanding of humanity. Yes, strange as it may seem, I really want to feel a great sorrow.

With this last wish I complete the synopsis of the things I want to do before I die. Irrational as they may seem to the reader, nevertheless they comprise a sincere summary of what I truthfully now believe to be the things most essential to a fully satisfactory and happy life. As I stand here on the threshold of my future, these are the things which to me seem the most valuable. Perhaps in fifty years I will think that they are extremely silly. Perhaps I will wonder, for instance, why I did not include a wish for continued happiness. Yet, right now, I do not desire my life to be a bed of roses. I want it to be something much more than that. I want it to be a truly great adventure, never dull, always exciting and engrossing; not sickly sweet, yet not unhappy. And I believe it will be all I wish if I do these things before I die.

As for death itself, I do not believe that it will be such a disagreeable thing providing my life has been successful. I have always considered life and death as two cups of wine. Of the first cup, containing the wine of life, we can learn a little from literature and from those who have drunk it, but only a little. In order to get the full flavor we must drink deeply of it for ourselves. I believe that after I have quaffed the cup containing the wine of life, emptied it to its last dregs, then I will not fear to turn to that other cup, the one whose contents can be designated only by X, an unknown, and a thing about which we can gain no knowledge at all until we drink for ourselves. Will it be sweet, or sour, or tasteless? Who can tell? Surely none of us like to think of death as the end of everything. Yet is it? That is a question that for all of us will one day be answered when we, having witnessed the drama of life, come to the final curtain. Probably we will all regret to leave this world, yet I believe that after I have drained the first cup, and have possibly grown a bit weary of its flavor, I will then turn not unwillingly to the second cup and to the new and thrilling experience of exploring the unknown.

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