An elegant equation

The math struck me recently while I was thinking about my mom. She was 62 when she passed on. I’m 43 now. If I get to live as long as my mom did, I have 19 years left.

It’s simple math. Just plain subtraction. An elegant equation.

The starkness of loss came to me late in life. Twelve years ago death made its self known to me, as Vinnie and I started attending a slough of funerals that stretched over years, most for people who died way too young. Those deaths ranged from ski accidents, a freakish unexplained death, bitter battles with cancer, long illnesses. And the amazing, just-as-it-should-be death of my 92-year old grandmother who passed on surrounded by family and friends.

My adult years have been punctuated by some piercing moments: singing to my mom as her body labored with its last breaths as her soul departed, the biting agony of learning that a friend with teenage daughters died from cancer just months after my own mom, my beloved cousins grieving for their father who died not long after.

And thankfully, blessedly, there have been shining moments of joy and hope: the thrill of standing in a field of wildflowers as Vinnie and I crested the rise at Summerland to look into the blue glass of glaciers; the hushed intimacy as we stood among the tall pines waiting for our wedding ceremony to begin; holding my breath next to my cousin to watch the owl that was certainly a totem from her father.

Addition and subtraction.

I think of this simple equation, the 19 standing alone to the right of the equals sign, not as a weight, but as a buoy. It lifts me up above the waves for a bigger view. It reminds me to ask, in the words of Mary Oliver: what will I do with this one wild and precious life? And even more so, with this given moment, with this single day?

There is absolutely no amount of time that is guaranteed – that is the biggest lesson I have learned in these years. With that comes the recognition that I want to cherish every day, to savor its happening.

But it’s difficult for me, as it is for most of us, to live in the present. So I do what I can: breathing and noticing the moment, the day, the loved one, the opportunity, the beauty, the divine in all things. I remind myself to live right where I am, feeling the sun on my face, instead of standing numb while my mind swirls with thoughts of the future.

I make no long term bargains with myself: I will not work now in exchange for the uncertain promise of retirement years. I will not wait to live the life that is the best expression of me. I write no bucket lists. The only yearning I want to hearken to is for those moments and days right next to the moment and day that I’m in. I have no long range vision. I am as near-sighted as I can train myself to be.

This is not to say that I don’t have hopes and dreams. But I keep them on a short leash, putting them in a one to three year trajectory, rather than imagining my life 10 or 20 years from now. And I look for ways to brings those dreams into the day that I’m living, to make them part of the experience I get to taste and hold today.

The idea of 19 years motivates me in more than one way. To live in the present as deeply as I can, yes, and also to imagine my life outside the drawn boundary of 62 years old. What could my life be like if I outlive the length of my mom’s life? What might I want for myself?

A downside to this elegant equation is this: it provides me no answers. It cannot tell me how to live my life on the other side of loss. The simplicity of it can inspire me though – 19 years, after all, is made up of a long strand of moments and days.

The days are passing quickly: 10 to go

The countdown timer on our trip to Europe suddenly started moving faster today: we’ve 10 days left til we depart.

Suddenly the neck of the hourglass has widened and the sands of time are rushing through it. Soon, much sooner than I can imagine, I’ll be on a plane for my first trip to Europe.

There are some things yet to be done, but not many. It’s time for Patty Perfect Planner to take her spreadsheet and her colored markers (really, I have those), and get into the back seat. Her assignment is to be quiet and enjoy the ride.

Vinnie and I have set a few guidelines (not quite rules) for our ramble through Europe:

– Try to have found a campsite or lodging by 3:30pm. It’s no fun to try to figure out where you’re going to sleep in the dark.

– Hostels are just fine.

– Yes, let’s take ground coffee beans with us.

– We’ll by paper maps when we arrive (not having maps when we’ve needed them has been an ongoing theme for us. We’re trying to do better).

– And, if the situation goes to shit, whichever one of us is in a better mental state will start speaking with a faked Irish accent – immediately. Because I just have to laugh, especially when it’s me speaking with the fake accent.


So, we’ve planned minimally. We’re beginning to consider packing. We have two trips planned before now and when we leave in 10 days (is that a bad thing?).

Ooh, and we’ve found two things we absolutely want to do during our 24 day big adventure. I’ve already got the tickets booked for Brú na Bóinne, the Iron Age burial mound in Ireland.

And now we’ll be packing swimsuits, because while we’re in Budapest, we want to go to the Szechenyi Bath, a 100+ year old thermal bath.

Look for trip photos here beginning in 11 days, when we’re on the ground in London.


Look Ma – no hands

photo by Renee Casterline

When I was a kid, we used to laugh and throw our hands up whenever the car whooshed down over a hill, and shout “Look Ma, no hands!”

Do you know what I mean? Can you feel the tingle in your belly?

Well, two days ago I read an amazing piece of writing by a very brave man and I feel something similar, except the tingling is in my heart. Chris Guillebeau has been writing good works and inspiring me for years. Under the Unseen Blue Sky in Sydney, Australia, his recent blog post that gives a portrait of a moment in time, is a raw, stripped down, vulnerable telling of how he feels and what life looks like for him in the gray land of depression.

It makes me think of showing up naked and unprepared for a presentation, not because it’s a bad dream but because that’s the truth of the moment – things just didn’t come together they way they should have. No makeup. No suit. No armor.

I’ve written to Chris to thank him for his courage, because here’s the thing: We need people telling it like it is. We need role models who say, this is me, this is true and I’m not going to try to pretty it up so it’s less painful, less scary. Brene Brown says that to live a wholehearted life one of the foundation stones is to allow yourself to be seen, to be vulnerable in the moments when that is most difficult.

Chris is doing that. He’s showing up, no hands. His life is teetering on and off the rails right now, and he’s not pretending otherwise. And he’s not pretending that he’s stoked at the idea that it will make him a better person. “And lest you forget,” he tells himself, “what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger, but first it will really try to kill you.”

At the same time, Chris is doing his work, he’s showing up in the world, he’s giving as much as he can. He’s holding space for what may come. He won’t sugar coat things for the sake of his audience, he won’t lie to us: “Sometimes you’re just going to be sad, and that’s okay. There’s not always a solution, and some things can’t be fixed,” he writes.

That’s a powerful guide rail for living with grief and loss. It’s a model I needed back in those early years after my mom passed away. It’s the permission to be wrecked, to not recover in a few months, that was the truth for me, whether I wanted it to be true or not.

Chris, who has long provided tools and guides for his audience, does it in this piece too. He gives the idea of “known truths” – those things that you know to be true, and only that. Not things that might be true, that you wish were true. Only those things you can name with certainty about yourself and the time of your life that you’re living in. It’s a wonderful tool for self care and self love, at any time.

Struggle and pain are part of our lives, despite any wishing that it could be otherwise. Platitudes and unrealistic expectations for stuffing it down, hiding it away, just aren’t helpful. Community, connection, being seen and embraced for just who you are and what you’re living – those are the balms that help us through. Those are the threads that bind us closer to each other.

Thank you, Chris Guillebeau, for being so brave and so gracious with your life.

Claiming epic

Did I say that I wanted to do something that tested my courage? Something that made my stomach squirm and my heart race?

Why, yes, I did say that to myself. In fact, I say it to myself rather often.

So this morning I did a thing that I’ve been putting on my weekly to do list for a about a month and a half now: I sent a tender, vulnerable piece of writing to a group of beta readers to ask their input so I can get it polished for posting on this blog.

That took courage.

As we’ve been watching the Olympics – those folks who have put their lives into going big, into chasing a dream, into putting all of themselves on the line – I’ve been having a thought:

What is my epic thing?

What is the thing that I put myself into that requries taking risks, requires exposure, is based in uncertainty and fueled by a hope, a vision, an image of what could be?

And then this question: do we all need an epic thing?

One of the aspects of growing into adulthood has been the recognition that while we are all similiar, we do not think, feel and imagine in the same ways. The folks I am closest to in my life do not, in fact, think the way I do. They don’t approach life the same. They don’t focus on the things I focus on. Their mental gymnastics are not comprised of the same elements and routines as mine.

So I have to wonder if questing after some epic achievement is something that most people think about.

And what is epic, anyway? Much as I have asked myself questions about how adventure is different for each of us, this holds the same kind of infinite variation. Going on an adventure is specific to each one of us. Aiming for something epic is the same. While it’s easy to compare my adventure to another person’s, this isn’t about comparison. How many miles in how few days does not make my adventure more or less of an adventure if I lay it next to a friend’s trip. What makes it an adventure is that it sent my heart racing, my mind whirling with possibilities, my body tingling with the physical sensations of living that thing.

I’d like to think that we can all reach for something epic in the same way. If going on an overnight backpacking trip feels like a wild, barely attainable achievement to you, then you get to call that trip epic. If it’s posting an expository piece to my blog, that’s my epic.

The claiming of epic achievements and the undertaking of adventure is really just a way to name the important moments in our lives. Yes, my life is full of adventure. Yes, it’s epic. It’s epic and adventurous because I like to strive for new things, I like to send my heart pounding. I’m claiming my epic.

That’s how stories are made

This is how we adventure: if Vinnie knows there’s going to be electricity, he brings the espresso machine camping. Joshua Tree adventures with friends.

My husband, Vinnie, is back home and we’re planning (sort of) for our 24 day trip to Europe that is coming up fast. A few weeks ago I was worrying over how to plan the trip (at that time Vinnie wasn’t in the US so we weren’t talking much about planning). Now that he’s home, we’ve had some conversations about the trip and come to an important realization:

We don’t plan.

Or perhaps, more specifically, when we’ve made travel plans in the past, typically we just throw them out the window and respond to whatever comes up. We follow whims. We go down roads that look interesting. We deviate from schedules. We poach campsites in unauthorized locations (and sometimes get kicked out in the middle of the night).

We know this about ourselves and our relationship. The Patty Perfect Planner side of me is shrieking in protest right now (loudly, so very loudly). It provides me some small sense of comfort to think that we would have an itinerary for the 24 days and five countries that are on our list. The idea that we’d plan a route and book lodging for most of the nights along the way sounds like a very reasonable thing to do. Patty agrees. But then I think about all of that work I’d put in, and I know how things would go – we’d toss the plan. I’d be calling and canceling rooms.

Because that’s not how we roll. Put us in a car in the countryside and it’s hard to say what might happen and where we might end up. Whether it’s rambling around the southwest, tooling through Washington state to national parks, driving the length of California to go to Joshua Tree or circumnavigating the state of Oregon in one long bender, we travel by the seat of our pants.

No. 2 fun – things go awry on the hike to Albert Lakes. This was not part of the plan.

And that’s how great stories are made. Earlier last week, as we grinned sheepishly at each other when we decided not to plan our trip to Europe, we laughed about our Taylor Lake adventure of last summer. We planned that one, and boy did it go sideways. Nothing went according to plan. Mishaps occurred. We were definitely having No 2 fun – the kind that isn’t fun at the time but you know it will make for a great story later. Vinnie’s pack did not slide all the way down into Smith Lake, no gear was broken, we made it to Taylor Lake with light to spare (rather than the planned for destination of Albert Lakes), and we enjoyed our three days there despite the major plan change.

This is what backcountry coffee making looks like.

Flush with the memories of our Taylor Lake adventure, we’ve decided that this is how we’ll approach the Europe trip: we’ll book our room for the first night and last night and maybe a couple in between. We’ll book a car rental (maybe one big enough that we can sleep in) and we’ll take our sleeping bags and tent. Because if we’ve got a sleeping bag and a tent, we’re pretty sure we can comfortably get through any of the decisions we make (some of which will inventively go sideways). Oh, and we’re bringing the backcountry coffee set up, because coffee is crucial to no-plan mornings.

So, happily, now I’ve only got a couple of rooms to book and my travel planning will be done. And that feels good already, even to the Patty Perfect Planner part of my personality. We’re talking Big Adventure here, folks, and that’s where we make stories together, how we deepen our trust in each other and how we get fired up for the next endeavor in our lives.