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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.

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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photo by D Sharon Pruitt

Friends,

Unbelievably, I’ve arrived at the end of the Year to Live project.  While I had originally thought our final class would take place in January 2011 – 364 days from when we started — it will draw to a close this Wednesday evening instead.

(Our teachers harbored no secret agenda in ending the class early.  No not-too-subtle message about the unpredictability of it all.  It was truly just a scheduling issue.)

I’ve learned from others that the “dissolution of the body” meditation which symbolically ends the class is a powerful one.  Frankly, I’m scared of it.  One person I know who experienced it said that this exercise is so visceral that he actually lost control of some, ah, bodily function when he did it.  So – yes – there are many reasons to be resisting all of this!

Someone asked our teacher, a hospice chaplain, about the main regrets people share on their death beds.  Number one, our teacher answered, is that they wish they’d said “I love you” more often.  Number two is that they wish they’d taken more vacation.  That’s it.  We’re pretty simple creatures when it comes right down to it.

In homage to love and appreciation of the journey, I’d like to share a passage I’ve been thinking about over and over again for the past several weeks.  It’s from the book “About Alice” by Calvin Trillin honoring his late wife:

Once, for the program at the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp [a camp for children with cancer and blood diseases] gala, some volunteer counselors contributed short passages about their experiences at camp, and Alice wrote about one of the campers, a sunny little girl she called L.

At camp, Alice had a tendency to gravitate toward the child who needed the most help, and L. was one of those.

“Last summer, the camper I got closest to, L., was a magical child who was severely disabled,” Alice wrote.  “She had two genetic diseases, one which kept her from growing and one which kept her from digesting any food.  She had to be fed through a tube at night and she had so much difficulty walking that I drove her around in a golf cart a lot.  We both liked that.”

“One day, when we were playing duck-duck-goose, I was sitting behind her and she asked me to hold her mail for her while she took her turn to be chased around the circle.  It took her a while to make the circuit, and I had time to see that on top of the pile was a note from her mom.  Then I did something truly awful, which I’m reluctant now to reveal.  I decided to read the note.  I simply had to know what this child’s parents could have done to make her so spectacular, to make her the most optimistic, most enthusiastic, most hopeful human being I had ever encountered.”

“I snuck a quick look at the note, and my eyes fell on the sentence: ‘If God had given us all of the children in the world to choose from, L., we would only have chosen you.'”

“Before L. got back to her place in the circle, I showed the note to Bud, who was sitting next to me. ‘ Quick. Read this,’ I whispered.  ‘It’s the secret of life.'”

Let me thank you all, once again, for sticking with me throughout!

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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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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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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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