A Life of No Regret

 

I ran across this poem recently:

What I Regret
By Nina Cassian

. . . never having heard the voice of the Dodo bird . . .
. . . never having smelled the Japanese cherry trees . . .
. . . never having punished the lovers and friends that
deserted me . . .
. . . never having asked for honours that I deserved . . .
. . . never having composed a Mozart sonata . . .
. . . never having realised that I’d live long enough to
regret all the above . . .
. . . and much, much more . . .

What a heartbreaking indictment, a tragic litany for a final act.

At some point in my fifties I realized that if I continued my trajectory, I would die with huge regrets. The picture was graphic: I saw myself on my death bed. I felt the agony of an unlived life but it was more than that. I was ashamed. Why had I undervalued myself? Why hadn’t I followed my dream of travel, my love of adventure? Why had I squandered the gift of years? I was smart, strong, healthy, and capable right up to the end. I could have changed my circumstances at any time. But seeing the shrunken disillusioned shell I’d become, it was obvious I hadn’t.

The vision terrified me. But it prompted action: a slow steady turning of the barge midstream to head toward the waterfall, and conquering that, to the sea beyond.

What I know now that I didn’t know then is a basic condition of my character: I have the capacity for unfathomable darkness and I’m hard-wired for adventure. It’s in my DNA. But if I don’t get healthy excitement, and if the darkness isn’t deliberate it will come out sideways, corrupted, and dysfunctional. In my life, it had done just that.

People thought I was nuts to move to the other side of the globe alone, to a place where I knew no one and had only been once for a two-week vacation. But there are times when knowing settles into the bones; times when you realize that listening to the crazy voices in your head will save you.

People have asked me, “How did you summon the courage to do it?”

Courage? Ha! It was terror, pure and simple. I was terrified of the alternative and fear is by far the most powerful motivator there is.

That short visit was enough for me to know that Bali’s energy was different, that there was something there for me.

The culture is rich, deep, and ancient. Shamanistic rituals maintain the balance between darkness and light.

There are world-class events: the Ubud Writers Festival, the Food Festival, the Jazz Festival, the Bali Spirit Festival, the Kite Festival, the Arts Festival, that challenge and entertain.

There are natural disasters: earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, that provide enough trauma for several lifetimes.

There are problems: illiteracy, pollution, poverty, which create boundless opportunities to get involved and help. Bali, by nature, provides everything I need and allows me to be fully who I am, effortlessly. And maybe that’s the key: the lack of striving.

I hope you aren’t tired of hearing this from me. I know it’s a recurring theme. But I can’t emphasize enough the importance of living a fulfilled life. I hitched myself along for the ride on someone else’s dream many times. It’s a spirit-shattering business. Nobody but you can live your life. Nobody but you can nourish your soul.

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Wisdom from Never-Never Land

 

In that groggy place suspended between dreams, I often get my clearest insights. Inspiration lurks there and I have to be quick to capture it before it dissolves into the murky shadows of Never-Never Land.

It’s fortunate on such mornings that I live alone. When I leap out of bed, throw covers on the floor, dash across the room, stub my toe, hobble to the table, scrabble among the papers for a pen, and write furiously without being able to see the words because it’s still that dark, anyone watching would have to laugh…I have to laugh!

Sometimes I return to my cozy nest and immediately fall back to sleep. When I awake again an hour or so later, I have no memory of my pre-dawn brilliance, throbbing toe aside, until I sit down with my first cup of coffee and see the scribbled note.

That’s what happened this morning.

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When I looked at what I’d written, the concept my subconscious mind had been chewing on all by itself with no help (or hindrance) from me came back in a flash. The more I considered it, the more it made sense. Here’s the gist.

1 – 20 Lost.     From birth to around twenty years old, we’re not our own. The adults in our lives make the plans. They mold us, scold us, and hopefully we arrive at adulthood fairly unscathed. Those years are lost in the sense that we don’t control them.

20 – 60 Learning.     I’d like to say that we have things pretty well figured out by age forty or so. But I didn’t. I was still repeating the same stupid mistakes I’d made in my 20’s and 30’s. They wore different clothes and had new faces but underneath those choices were driven by the damaged sense of self that hadn’t changed since childhood. Damaged or not, our child-rearing, career-building years are spent learning.

60 – ?  Living.     There should be another category tucked between 50 and 60 called Transforming. It’s a time of reckoning. The kids have gone on to start their own learning years. The nest is empty. If we’re still married there’s nothing to distract us from our mate any longer. It’s just the two of us trying to remember why.

And we change. It’s impossible not to. But is it conscious change or unconscious? If we’re aware of the growth opportunity and work with it, we’ll advance into our sixties wiser, making good decisions for ourselves and modeling positive aging for others. If the change is unconscious we may go to the grave still making the same mistakes.

The morning insights could have stopped there.

But my subconscious has a mind of its own and it likes to do math. (This is definitely not me.) What it came up with was so simple and obvious I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it myself.

Bear with me now. We’re going to throw away years 1 – 20, we had no control over them anyway. From 20 – 60, then, are forty years of self-management, probably much of it spent meeting expectations, shouldering responsibilities, keeping the nose to the grindstone, the pedal to the metal, with a two-week vacation thrown in now and then to maintain sanity.

But consider this: our life expectancy in North America is around eighty years. Think about all that happened between ages 20 to 40, then from 40 to 60. Now we have another 60 to 80 ahead, one-third of our adult life yet to be lived. My mother at 90, still works out five days a week, beats the pants off the others at Bingo, and pretty much rules the roost in her assisted living facility. So where am I going with this?

Don’t waste the Living years.

What did you always wish you could do but never did? Make a plan and do it. Have you neglected exercise and proper diet? Start now to implement healthy habits. Does the cost of living where you are prohibit retirement? Move. I did, and it was the best decision I ever made. Did you fail to finish your degree? Check out your state’s Statutes. In Minnesota senior citizens can attend college tuition free. Maybe your state has a similar ruling.

Live like dying isn’t an option.

It’s not denial, it’s grabbing hold of the greatest gift we’ve ever been given, life, and running with it…wee wee wee, all the way home.

 

 

 

 

 

Hiding out in the past

 

I’ve been writing my memoir for three years. It seems like forever until I think about the 67 years it took me to live it.

On Tuesday, September 19th, 2017, at 11:30 p.m. Bali time, after once again reading through the entire 99,327 word manuscript, I deleted an unnecessary adjective on page 181, took a weary breath, and hit send. A kind woman in New York City will take a look at it. She’s been in the publishing industry for a long time. The fate of my labors hangs on her advice.

I didn’t anticipate the feelings that would arise in the absence of that project. I expected relief and little else. There’s been a little relief and a lot else. Every morning for the past three years I’ve awakened knowing I had work to do. September 20th, dawned with an entire day empty. That’s how it felt: empty. The truth is, I’m retired. Every hour is mine to fill or not in any way I choose. But I’d committed the previous thirty-six months to writing, and that gave my life focus. Finished now, at least for the moment, what would I do with all that available time?

Before I could swing my legs over the side of the bed for morning ablutions, a realization hit: I was back in the present. I’d spent three years reliving the past. I don’t mean remembering – remembering is passive. Reliving is active involvement, re-experiencing, re-feeling, bringing up old emotions to craft into words so future readers can connect with something real. Sending the manuscript on its way detached me from that former time and catapulted me into the present.

A huge portion of mental real estate was wiped clean. My mind, scrubbed and shiny, felt new. The sensation expanded throughout my body. It made sense. The tens of thousands of words I’d dredged up to tell my story had been at the expense of every nerve and cell where traumas were stored. My entire being had existed in the past for the duration of the writing, and now I was free.

The present is a new experience, and I’m not yet altogether comfortable with it. Although much of the past was unpleasant, it was familiar. I could always duck into it, hide for days believing that I was working – writing – which I was. I was also healing. Mucking around in those stories, retelling them, gave me the opportunity to see things in a different light. In so doing, wounds healed. But at the same time, I was stuck there, using the past as a buffer to cushion myself from – from what?

From getting old. Yes. From the very real, very present evidence of encroaching old age. To be fully present means accepting who I am now. I’ve heard many mature adults say that inside they still feel sixteen, or twenty-five. I used to say the same. But writing the memoir has brought me current. I’ve lived those years, twice. I’ve learned the lessons, finally, and have earned the earmarks of the elder: sags, wrinkles, and wisdom, one would hope!

There have been other shifts like this, seismic upheavals that heralded a new way of being, and all have come through writing. It’s a profound tool for self-discovery, and writing memoir is the ultimate challenge. For me, reliving my life through memoir accomplished what the first incarnation hadn’t: I grew up. But I’m not so adult as to pass on a pair of totally outrageous earrings at the Smile Shop – aren’t they great?!

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The ‘I’m Getting Old’ Myth

I’m getting old. It feels weird to look at my arms and see skin hanging off the muscle like wrinkled fabric. I still have really good muscles but the skin, OMG! The thighs are just as bad but I make it a point not to look at them.

Others my age cover their arms. I refuse. That’s part of the adjustment. How vain do I need to be? It’s a valid question. How vain do I need to be to continue to support the image of who I am, or an image of what I want others to believe I am?

We need to assimilate age, to accept it and become it. Otherwise we succumb to the impossible quest for eternal youth like Dolly Parton (71) or her counterpart old whatshisname Kenny Rogers (79)! They’ve been under the knife so many times that there probably isn’t an inch of flesh anywhere that hasn’t been sliced, pulled up, and tacked in place.

Dolly PartonKenny Rogers

And what are those glove thingy’s that Dolly’s wearing! Probably a distraction to camouflage really old hands!
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I’m on a rant, but I’m finished now. Don’t, however, tell me that getting old beats the alternative even though it does, so far. The 50’s ease us into the idea. Oh yeah, I have a laugh line here or an eye-wrinkle there, and oh yeah, I need bifocals. Then we’re 60. Things still aren’t too bad if the lights are low.
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But hold on to your perky tits, darlings, it’s a slippery slope from there!
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So here’s what I’m saying. If there’s too much identity linked to the packaging, getting old is going to be a very difficult, or a very expensive proposition. But if life gets richer, raunchier, and more succulent with each passing year, a subtle exchange occurs. We turn inside-out. I kid you not. The inner workings of the mind, our passions and dreams, become paramount and the carcass is just a vehicle to get us from point A to point B.
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Which behooves me to say, take good care of that carcass!

My Wife is Fat

I strolled through the neighborhood this morning with a shadowy intention of ending up at Lake Harriet.  The sky was a powder-blue dome, seamless, the sun its only adornment. I’ve driven or biked the route many times but walking yields sights and sounds that are otherwise lost.

There are huge, peach colored irises in a garden right by the sidewalk. They are the size of coconuts, or cantaloupes, utterly breathtaking. One block has a row of maple trees including the showy Crimson King with the dark purple leaves. There was no traffic.  It was so quiet I could hear bugs skittering through the grass. I could also hear my own thoughts.

I’ve learned a lot about thoughts. Thoughts are the root of everything. No matter what situation I find myself in, how I choose to think about it becomes my reality. That nugget of truth was brought home to me time and again when I talked with my Balinese friends. One conversation in particular comes to mind. We were discussing nutrition, the abundance of healthy eating choices available to the native residents and foreigners alike in Bali. In spite of that, I had noticed that some Balinese women and children are overweight. My friend told me that the Balinese can earn more money now and it is easier to buy rich food or prepackaged cookies, candy, and snacks. He flashed a huge smile and said, “My wife is fat.” It was one of those moments, there were many, when I didn’t know whether to congratulate him, scold him for saying something unkind, or commiserate. I have a terrible tendency to sit with my mouth half open and a glazed look in my eyes while experiencing inner turmoil. Still mentally trying to sort through the etiquette of an answer, he rescued me. “I like it!” he exclaimed.

So, to my point, he thinks fat is beautiful. He THINKS fat is beautiful. Therefore his chubby wife makes him happy. This is what was floating about in my mind as I meandered the streets this morning. I dallied through the rose gardens, across the biking and walking paths that circle the lake, and out onto a wide, plank dock. As I sat down at the end I realized I had been noticed. The fish were gathering. I counted 21 then stopped. They formed a semi-circle at the end of the dock with their pointed noses all headed in my direction, watching, waiting. We eyed each other for about three minutes, then they tired of me and swished away. I took off my sandals and bared my shoulders to the warm rays. Ahhhh. I slowly gave in to gravity and reclined full-length.

Creating my own reality is a big responsibility. Choosing how I will think about everything makes me have to think about thinking. It requires that I become aware of my tendencies toward negative or positive viewpoints. It is the process of mind watching mind. As a child I was taught how to moderate my physical actions. I remember mom saying, “Sit like a lady,” and I knew that meant I should keep my knees together. But there was no instruction regarding how to think in order to create my own happiness.

I have neither a fat wife nor a fat husband. That’s a plus. However, I do have to organize my thinking around wrinkles, retirement, and what matters most as I enter the ‘golden years.’ What surprises me is the feeling of empowerment. Knowing that I can stop at any time, review my thoughts and change them, puts me in charge of my own happiness. Senility may eventually put a wrench in the works, but until then I’m choosing NOT to think about that.

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