A Life Well Lived; Knowing What Matters

Grandma and me - July 2011

Recently life was put in perspective for me. Sometimes I need that smack upside my head to remind me of what’s really important. I touched on this in my last post. How I go along from day to day rushing here, doing that. Not enjoying life, but not stopping to ask myself if this is really how I want things to go down. It’s like I’m on a carnival ride after I’ve had too much cotton candy and funnel cake. I feel like I could puke, but the ride just won’t stop.

I don’t remember the last time I saw my paternal grandmother. If I had to guess I’d say it’s been several years at least. I was out of town for her 90th birthday almost two years ago. I called her and she assured me she was going to make it to 100 so I didn’t feel any real urgency to make time for her. And even though I’ve been to my parent’s house, which is the property right next to my grandma’s, I haven’t taken the time or made the effort to see her. I didn’t really think much about it.

Sure, I’ve spoken to her on the phone; on her birthday and mine. I’ve sent her cards on Mother’s Day, Easter, Christmas. Sent her pictures of my kids. But I haven’t made the time to sit with her, to hold her hand, to show her I love her. Time is a precious gift I’ve given far too little of. In the last few years I’ve told myself I’m too busy. My reasons, also known as excuses, are numerous and varied. I have too much to do, it’s such a long drive, it will be uncomfortable, what will we talk about? When I read those words now, they sound ridiculous, but they seemed perfectly reasonable at the time.

Then my sister mentioned my grandma hadn’t been well; that she’d been hospitalized a couple times. For what, I’m not sure. Old people stuff, I guess. So I thought it was probably a good idea to go see her when I got a message from my aunt; my dad’s sister. It’s normally hard for me to take her too seriously. She’s always been a little on the ‘chicken little, the sky is falling’ side. I’m guessing she made the phone call because she was mad at my parents for not telling us kids that grandma had one foot in the grave. She likes to be the bearer of bad news. The message actually said if I couldn’t make it to see her, there would be a funeral. Like I want to see her at her funeral? Not so much!

Since I know my aunt tends to be overly dramatic, I checked with my mom to get the scoop. And sure enough, my grandmother had been to the hospital. No diagnosis…just that she was getting old and her body was wearing out. And for the first time, I realized my time with her was limited. So I decided to make the loooooooooooong drive when I had toooooooooooo much to do (did I seriously buy that crap in the past?) so I could see my grandma. My excuses didn’t hold much water anymore.

She was taking a nap so her caregiver, Annamae, had to wake her up, but this is the best part. Once she could focus her eyes and realize who I was (bear in mind it had been a while since she’d me and she wasn’t expecting me) she got the sweetest look on her face. You know that look little kids get when you surprise them with something totally unexpected? That was the look. Her eyes got big and she took in a breath of surprise. Then said my name like she could hardly believe it was me. I can still see that moment in my mind and it’s something I’ll always treasure. Those are the times in life you wish you could bottle up and keep forever. It still makes me tear up when I think about it.

We sat with my mom and Annamae and talked and joked. My grandma still has a great sense of humor. She asked about my kids and when I looked on the wall behind her bed, there was the last picture of them I had sent her. She remembers everything! We watched the hummingbirds in the flowers outside her window. She looked a little sad when she talked about not being able to get outside and keep the yard up. Most of us complain about doing yardwork…myself included. But it’s one of the things she misses.

She said she’s had a great life and reminded me she still plans to make it to 100. She joked about not being a spring chicken anymore and we all laughed about that. She told me how lucky she is to have such a loving family. And even though my dad just turned 70, she still calls him Billy. I guess your child is your child no matter how old they get. She’s led a simple, yet full life. Not punctuated by successes and achievements. She has never had very much in the way of material possessions. She doesn’t value the things we all seem to be striving for. She knows what really matters. I guess you don’t get to be 91 without learning a thing or two about life.

But the most poignant moment was when she leaned over, held my hand and said, “Life goes by so fast.” I’m fairly certain she did not expect these last 90 plus years to fly by the way they have. I am in shock at how fast the last 44 have gone for me. And while I’d love to say I’ve completely changed and now only spend my time on things that have great meaning for me, that would not be true. But I do notice, when I catch myself rushing and trying to accomplish more in less time and sacrificing time with those I love, I hear her voice in my head saying, “life goes by so fast.” And then I stop and breath and try to focus on what matters.

Because at some point in the future, probably in the blink of an eye, I’m going to be at the end of the road. I don’t want to look back and wish I’d done it differently. I try to remind myself everything that needs to get done, gets done. And the other stuff doesn’t really matter. A life well lived comes in doing it my own way…whatever that looks like for me. Whatever that looks like for you. So when the shoulds, the musts and the have to’s are banging at your door, try to remember what my grandma said. It all goes by so fast. And you get to decide what matters.


Stop the World, I Want to Get Off!

I want to start off this post with an apology. When I started this blog, my intention was to be more authentic and real and to share that journey with you. Well, I haven’t done much sharing lately and for that, I’m sorry. Not that there hasn’t been anything to share. I just haven’t made it a priority to sit down and write…and that has been weighing on me. This might be hard for some to understand; it sounds strange even to me. But when something wants to be written, it will nag at me until I make the time to get it down on paper. So I’m back and I’m hoping to make this a regular gig again. Because, frankly, I have a lot to say and I love to write. And also, because I just can’t take the nagging inside my own head.

When I say, “Stop the world”, it’s not the world I’m actually talking about. It’s my world…the world I’ve created for myself. The world itself is moving along at its own pace with or without me; I have no control over that. What I do have control of is what my life looks like. The speed of my life is a direct result of the choices I make. I get to choose whether or not to put all my energy into things that don’t really matter to me. Or force myself to keep going when I’m tired. Or not make time for the people and things I enjoy. I tell myself “I have to”, but that’s not really true. Everything is a choice. I can choose to make the things that are important to me, a priority. Let’s just say, I haven’t been very good at that lately.

As a society we put so much more focus on doing than being. How much can we accomplish? What more can we cross off our ‘to do’ list? It’s almost a badge of honor to forego sleep in the quest to accomplish more. If you’re tired, don’t listen to your body and rest…that would be ridiculous! Just have another cup of coffee or an energy drink and you’ll be focused and productive for hours. Even our time off is filled with doing. What’s the first thing someone asks you on Monday morning? “What did you do this weekend?” So you rattle off all the things you checked off your list or the activities you participated in. I’ll admit I have never felt comfortable saying, “I just laid around all weekend and did nothing!”

As much as I say I want more time to just be, I often allow myself to get sucked into thinking I have to work more just to keep up. Every day I’m pushing myself to stay focused, stay on task. Get it all done and then some. Last week it occurred to me I couldn’t remember the last time I hung out with my friends. Or enjoyed time with my kids. Or watched TV because I wanted to, not just to veg out after a long and stressful day. It occurred to me I didn’t know what was going on in the world because I hadn’t watched or read the news in…well, I don’t know how long. I couldn’t recall the last time I meditated…something that, not so long ago, was a daily practice for me. You know it’s been a long time when you can’t remember how long it’s been. This is not how I want to live my life.

I recently finished a book I’d been reading for quite a while. I renewed it at the library the maximum number of times and it was still overdue when I turned it in. But I’m glad I finally finished it. The book is called, Unfinished Business: one man’s extraordinary year of trying to do the right things. It’s about a workaholic in his mid-fifties who suddenly lost his job and realized he’d become disconnected from all the people who matter in his life. So he took the next year to reconnect and make things right. More than tying up lose ends, he discovered how much these connections enhance his life. And reminds us all to stay focused on what’s really important.

Little by little, I’m learning to make choices not based on what I think I ‘should’ do, but by asking myself, “will this matter when I get to the end of my life?” And I’m finding that helps remind me what’s important when I start getting caught up in the madness of more, better, faster.  I also found some great advice on page 137 of Lee Kravitz’s Unfinished Business, “All of us are going to die—some sooner, some later. After you die, what would you like people to say about you? Your answer to that question should guide the way you live.” And while that statement really resonates with me, it’s still difficult advice to follow.

So I’m trying to have more balance…and I’m finding it’s not easy. Here’s the trick. In an environment where the expectation is very high, how can I do my job well without sacrificing the other things that matter to me? When my ‘to do’ list is long and the demands seem endless, how do I make time for meditation and writing and friends and fun? I don’t know the answer to that yet. Most days I feel like if I don’t remain hyper-vigilant at work, something is going to fall through the cracks. In this job, that’s not acceptable. So the only thing I can do is continue to bring myself back to center when I recognize I’ve gone off-course. And hope, each time I fall back into old patterns, I see it sooner than I did the last time.